While Super Bowl news usually fills the front page and sports section, rarely does it reach the political pages. This year, the superbly done Clint Eastwood ad for Chrysler did just that. “It’s Halftime in America” might be the best political ad that isn’t really a political ad at all. To find out, Lobbyblog constructed a list of the top 5 Presidential Campaign Ads since 1984.
5. 1988 – “Willie Horton” – One of two H.W. Bush ads to make the list, Willie Horton is something that belongs in any 80’s political time capsule, right next to a picture of Gary Hart and the “Monkey Business.” Very contemporary, it perfectly meshed with crime spikes of the 80’s and the public fears that came with them, which everyone at the time knew was entirely due to liberals. However, what really gave the ad staying power was how controversial and racially charged it was (and the fact that it got a second life when claims that it violated FEC laws were filed).
Use of controversial ads continues to this day (why not, Bush did win after all) with ads such as Jesse Helm’s (won) “Hands”, Corker’s (won) anti-Harold Ford Jr. ad, and Rep. Hoekstra’s (may win?) new “Spenditnow.” Aside from running the gauntlet of “kind of racist” to “did I just see that?!?” for the most part what bothers me is that unlike Willie Horton, they are really just poorly constructed campaign ads. However, the fact that we’re talking about them (Spenditnow has well over 1 million hits in less than a week) might just prove the saying there’s no bad press. NOTE: Of course it was never be mentioned in the ad, the furlong program that release Willie Horton was signed by a Republican governor of Mass, not Dukakis.
4. 1984 – “Morning in American” – When I saw the Clint Eastwood ad this past weekend, this ad was the first thing that went through my head. In my opinion, the brilliance of this one is that you can remove Reagan’s name and it would fit perfectly for a majority of politicians in almost any election. It is a great example of an ad that brands a candidate and creates positive emotions. While attack ads can help erode support for an opponent, they rarely motivate volunteer work on the ground outside of one or two groups that might be directly affected by the attack ad. Reagan, with his background in advertising, perfectly understood that a positive brand would (and did) translate into a very strong volunteer numbers. “Morning in America” was less about voting for Reagan and more about voting for an idea.
3. 2004 – “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” – There were really three that I wanted to put here, this, Kerry Windsailing (hit home the flip-flopping) and Wolves (one of Online Blackjack the best last-minute ads and taken directly from Reagan’s successful “Bears in the woods”). However, this one won out for three reasons: it was incredibly successful for what it was aiming to do, it helped to launch a national debate on 527 Groups (a debate that we are currently having and will have for the rest of the year) and, most importantly, my editor made me pick it.
The Swift Boat ads (there were a series of commercials) was so successful it made it seem that one of Kerry’s strengths going into the election (his wartime service) was actually one of his liabilities. If Willie Horton shows how to use an ad to hit an opponent’s weakness, the Swift Boat series showed how to nullify one of their strengths.
2. 2008 – “Yes, we can” – The only Democratic commercial on the list, (I can’t tell if that is good or bad) I consider this the evolutionary “Morning in America,” another great example of voting for an idea over a candidate. The star-studded ad based upon President Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech, much like the campaign itself, became as much a cultural phenomenon as a political one. This kind of simplicity was an easy, positive message that was missing from previous Democratic candidates Gore and Kerry. “Yes, we can” and the culture that it created showed that a good, positive message can win a campaign much better than a negative one. So why isn’t it #1 on the list?
1. 1988 – “Dukakis in a Tank” – There is a centuries old saying in American politics, don’t get in a tank or land on an aircraft carrier unless you are sure you are going to look awesome while doing so. (ed- I’d stress the ridiculous helmet over the tank. Tanks are cool, comically big headwear isn’t) Candidates that don’t heed this advice can watch as their own media stunt is turned into an effective ad for their opponent; and it is times like that things can go horribly wrong. And when Dukakis got in a tank, things went horribly wrong. Things went so wrong that even 14 years later the cartoon Futurama was making jokes about the tank incident. Though often used as a punch line now, it is easy to forget that at one point Dukakis was ahead in the polls by as many as 20 points at one time. However, by the end of the race, his VP candidate Lloyd Bentsen had appeared more presidential, even receiving one of his Electoral College votes.
BONUS: 2008 – “Rock” – I dare anyone to watch this ad and “Fire” and not ask themselves “How is Mike Gravel NOT the president right now?”
What did you think of the list? Love it? Hate it? Confused? Let us know by e-mailing the writer here.