The power of political imagery to overshadow party platforms is now a fact of presidential politics, but it wasn’t always that way.
Television was introduced as a political tool in the 1950s, but campaign ads then did little to fully utilize the new medium, depicting candidates standing at a desk or podium, soberly reciting party platforms.
Then in 1964 the Democratic Party hired a Madison Avenue ad firm that changed the game forever with the “Daisy” advertisement. It opened quietly with a little girl picking petals off a daisy, transitioning abruptly to a mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion filling the screen.
The ad was only shown once but it was talked and written about long after. It never even mentioned Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, known for supporting nuclear weapons. But it dramatized the fear many Americans had about Goldwater in the White House: he was not reliable.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected in a landslide, and the message got across: Forget policy statements. Create emotions that get out the vote for your candidate.
President Ronald Reagan’s team put that lesson to work in his 1984 re-election campaign with “Morning in America.” The ad brought lavish Hollywood production values into the realm of political advertising and showed happy, prosperous, predominantly white Americans going to work and celebrating family events. It ended with the line “It’s morning again in America.”
The goal of the ad was to generate warm and fuzzy feelings about President Reagan’s first term, and it worked. He carried every state but Minnesota.
In 1988, the game shifted again when the campaign of George H.W. Bush outsourced the production of “Willie Horton.” It pioneered a new, controversial and brutally effective approach to campaign advertising.
The ad attacked Democratic contender Michael Dukakis over a much-debated Massachusetts furlough plan that let Horton, a convicted murderer, out of prison on a weekend pass. He escaped and assaulted a couple.
The ad portrayed Dukakis as a soft-on-crime-liberal but it also played to racial stereotypes to feed white fears about black criminals. Bush won handily.
This lesson plan also includes: “It’s 3:00 A.M.,” Hillary Clinton’s hard-hitting campaign ad that questioned Barack Obama’s readiness for the White House; “The Rock,” one of the strangest ads in political history; and “Smoking Man,” an unusual ad featuring Herman Cain’s chief of staff giving a pep talk while smoking a cigarette.