The beauty of this black-and-white ad from the very first televised presidential campaign is its simplicity. It features a woman fretting about inflation. In the next scene, Eisenhower says, “Yes, my Mamie gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say it’s time for a change. …” The war hero was making the point that even his family worried about prices. Eisenhower won in a landslide victory.
“Daisy Girl” (Dem. Lyndon Johnson, 1964)
Goal: To counter Goldwater’s impulsive and belligerent image.
Probably the most famous of all campaign commercials, this spot features a girl picking petals off a daisy, as she counts: “One, two, three. …” The counting segues into a voiceover of a countdown, and the screen fills with a mushroom cloud. Then Johnson intones: “These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. …” The spot delivered a powerful message in an unforgettable way.
“Laughter” (Dem. Hubert Humphrey, 1968)
Goal: To reinforce unknown vice presidential opponent Spiro Agnew’s image as a political joke.
Laughter is heard as these words appear on the screen: “Agnew for vice president?” The laughter becomes hysterical. Next, the screen reads: “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.” But Agnew had the last laugh: Humphrey’s party lost the election.
“We See Cities” (Rep. Richard Nixon, 1968)
Goal: To showcase Nixon’s commitment to law and order.
During the late 1960s, crime and war demonstrations raged throughout the nation’s cities. Capitalizing on the climate, the ad shows snippets of urban riots, citing rising crime rates. The listener then hears this from Nixon: “We see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. …[M]illions of Americans cry out in anguish, ‘Did we come all this way for this?’” It plays perfectly into the prevailing fear of lawlessness.
“Bear” (Rep. Ronald Reagan, 1984)
Goal: To position Reagan as the nation’s protector during the Cold war.
One of the most memorable campaign spots follows a grizzly bear walking through the woods. A narrator says, “Some say the bear is tame, others say it’s vicious and dangerous.” It concludes, “Isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear?” The bear represents the Soviet Union, and even though the Cold War is never mentioned, the ad drives home the need for preparedness in uncertain times
Robert Gilbert is the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. He focuses on American politics, media and politics, parties and elections, and the U.S. presidency. Gilbert has written extensively on the impact of illness and psychological adversities on presidents.