Willie Horton: Political Ads That Shaped the Battle for the White House

The infamous Willie Horton ad placed a nail in the coffin of Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential run.

The ad went on to became a model for outside groups seeking to influence a campaign – the forerunner to the Swift Boat Veterans and today’s Super PACs. This series of mini documentaries on ads that changed the political landscape was created in partnership with NBC News.

Educators, check out this video’s lesson plan and see the collection here.

Browse through dozens more lesson plans and videos here.

For teachers
  • Producer: Matthew Spolar
  • Editor: John MacGibbon

For Educators


Students will explore a series of influential four-minute presidential campaign ads, from the first one, made in 1952, to those from 2016. They will describe characteristics and analyze campaign ads over time, assessing their effectiveness. Students will focus on a series of short documentary videos about ads that changed the political landscape. Students may also create their own campaign ads.

The Political Ads That Shaped the Battle for the White House collection can be found here or by clicking below.

Background reading

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.

Lesson Plan 1: Exploring the Impact of Campaign Ads

Students will learn how famous campaign ads like the “Daisy,” “Morning in America” and “Willie Horton,” changed how political advertisements were made, and in doing so changed the course of history.


Students will:

  • Analyze campaign ads over time
  • Describe characteristics of campaign ads
  • Assess the effectiveness of campaign ads
  • Examine campaign ads that changed the political landscape
Essential questions
  • How have campaign ads affected voters?
  • What makes campaign ads effective?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.2.9-12.Analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system, with attention to various theories of democracy, changes in Americans’ participation over time, and alternative models from other countries, past and present.
    • D2.Civ.10.9-12.Analyze the impact and the appropriate roles of personal interests and perspectives on the application of civic virtues, democratic principles, constitutional rights, and human rights.
    • D2.Civ.12.9-12.Analyze how people use and challenge local, state, national, and international laws to address a variety of public issues.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.4.9-12.Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
    • D2.His.9.9-12Analyze the relationship between historical sources and the secondary interpretations made from them.
    • D3.2.9-12.Evaluate the credibility of a source by examining how experts value the source.
    • D3.3.9-12.Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims.
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns
    • Topic 5.12: The Media

      Skill 5D: Use refutation, concession, or rebuttal in responding to opposing perspectives.

      Theme: Civic Participation in a Representative Democracy (PRD)