Weekly Feature

Bush-Cheney 2004/AP
Video image of President and Mrs.
Bush in a campaign ad that aired on television in March
of 2004.

Political Ads

August 08, 2008
by Christopher Coats
It’s difficult now to imagine a presidential season, or any campaign for that matter, without the constant barrage of political ads. For those in traditional battleground states such as Florida or Pennsylvania, you’re likely to see literally hundreds throughout the election year. For this reason, candidates need to make ads count when it really matters. Sure, there are countless straightforward spots, touting this policy or that. But to stand out from the crowd candidates must reach deep in their creative arsenal and come up with something to make the 215,000,000 eligible voters sit up and take notice—something for the history books.

Fear Itself

Since campaign ads became the norm in 1952, candidates on both side of the aisle have taken several approaches to creating the clincher—the ad that might even manage to define the entire campaign. For many, the most reliable tactic is adding a dash of fear to the recipe. From the subtle to the blatant, ads relying on an element of fear are usually traced back to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s famous “Daisy” spot in his campaign against Barry Goldwater. Though the ad was only shown a single time before being pulled due to controversy, it is widely credited in assuring LBJ’s landslide victory. Since then, Republicans and Democrats alike have fallen back on the tried and true effort to give voters a bit of a fright, with monsters created according to each year’s political climate.

Guilt by Association

Another familiar advertising approach is trial by association. Whether it be personal, professional or a link so thin and distant that it strains the imagination to make the connection, linking opponents to questionable characters is a time-honored tradition of campaign commercials. Already this year both sides of the political spectrum have produced such ads, with local congressional ads in several states trying to link Democratic candidates to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright by way of their endorsement of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Democrats have wasted no time trying to connect John McCain with the policies of George W. Bush, whose approval ratings are now dangerously low. In perhaps the most novel approach to these sorts of advertisements, McCain released a spot linking Obama to none other than Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

Laugh Track

Perhaps the riskiest of all campaign ads is when a presidential candidate appeals to the nation’s sense of humor—no easy task when it comes to gauging laugh lines for 300 million people—or at least, likely voters. Like any joke, the humor approach can bring the house down, as it did with the Republican’s attack on John Kerry’s sporting habits or fall flat—crickets.

My Country ’Tis of Thee

Ultimately, the most familiar ads seen during political campaigns are those that appeal to the patriot in everyone. The cues are common and familiar and made to make you see the candidate as the quintessential citizen and maybe even make a voter feel better about their country. While these sorts of ads, with flags waving and soft, sunny tones, are the most common in the run up to November 2, a few stand out from the pack for their ability to define not only the campaign but the candidate themselves, such as Ronald Regan’s 1984 “Morning in America” spot.

Life Online

Since 2004, campaign ads have taken on a whole new life with the transition of the Internet into a political tool. Now, rather than producing a for a wide television audience, campaigns might put together a spot for online viewers only. The strategy promotes the ability to view the spot when and how a voter chooses and if it manages to pick up steam and go viral, the campaign can get national exposure without the national costs. John McCain learned this well earlier this year when he created an ad sharply critical of Barack Obama that was never intended for television viewers. Instead, the ad’s content earned countless plays on political talk shows discussing the ad itself.

For a comprehensive look at ads created by the Democratic and Republican nominees since 1952, visit the Living Room Candidate; a directory of political spots viewable on RealPlayer or Windows Media.

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