Like it or not, the 2016 presidential campaign season is in full force. The first Democratic candidate debate took place last night (Tuesday, Oct. 13), and two well-stocked Republican debates have already come and gone.

And that means campaign commercials. A lot them. For the next 12 months. So brace yourself.

But it wasn’t always like this.

In 1948 less than one percent of U.S. homes had TVs. By 1954 – a mere six years later –  more than half of all American’s had a boob-tube in the house. By 1958, that rate had soared to over 80 percent,  and today hovers at about 97 percent.

That’s according to University of Wisconsin Journalism Professor James L. Baughman, who documents the rapid rise of TV in American life. “No other household technology,” he writes, “not the telephone or indoor plumbing, had ever spread so rapidly into so many homes.”

It didn’t take political campaigns long to catch on to the enormous potential this new technology offered: a green light to instantly infiltrate the living rooms of millions of Americans, more directly, personally, and visually than ever before.

The very first televised campaign ads were launched in the 1952 presidential race. Leading the charge was Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower (and his running mate Richard Nixon). The campaign spent roughly $1.5 million on ads, twice that of Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson. The first series of spot ads, called “Eisenhower Answers America,” featured a seemingly average citizen asking a laughably scripted, leading question, to which Eisenhower frankly responded, staring directly into the camera, utterly devoid of emotion or charisma. The campaign soon followed up with the now legendary “I Like Ike” animation, which gave the candidate a major edge in the race.

The Living Room Candidate, a project of the Museum of the Moving Image, is an impressively thorough and well curated repository of presidential campaign ads in every election since 1952. Here are 10 of the heaviest hitters (note the wide variations between negative/fear-inducing and euphorically positive):

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Ike for President” (1952)


This  seemingly quaint commercial helped Eisenhower trounce his Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson. The first Republican to win the White House in 20 years, Eisenhower got 83 percent of the electoral vote.

John F. Kennedy’s “Kennedy For Me” (1960)

At 43, John F. Kennedy was to become the youngest elected candidate in U.S. history. Attacked by his opponent Richard Nixon as inexperienced, this jingle ad helped turn Kennedy’s youth into an asset, someone who is “old enough to know and young enough to do.”

Kennedy won with 56 percent of the electoral vote.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” (1964)

Part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 re-election bid, in the midst of the Cold War, this ad is among the most famous campaign commercials of all time. It ran only once, during an NBC broadcast of Monday Night at the Movies on September 7, 1964. But that was enough to scare the pants off an already skittish electorate, by painting his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater,  as a dangerous right-wing extremist who’d bring the world to the brink of disaster.

Johnson won the election with 90 percent of the electoral vote.

Hubert H. Humphrey’s “Laughter” (1968)

Although Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey ended up losing the 1968 presidential race to Richard Nixon, this ad still packed a punch by portraying Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s relatively unknown running mate, as a political neophyte, so inexperienced as to be, literally, laughable. The ad was created by Tony Schwartz, who also made Johnson’s “Daisy” ad.

Nixon still beat Humphrey, with nearly 56 percent of the electoral vote.

Richard Nixon’s “McGovern Defense” (1972)

This ad  aired during Richard Nixon’s re-election bid against Democratic challenger George McGovern in 1972. With the U.S. military still deeply engaged in the Vietnam War, Nixon’s campaign sought to portray Democrats as weak on national defense, with policies that would place the nation in peril. It was sponsored by a group called “Democrats for Nixon.”

Nixon won with a whopping 97 percent of the electoral vote.

Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America” (1984)

Part of a series of 1984 Reagan campaign ads collectively known as “Morning in America,” this commercial effectively highlights idyllic scenes of productivity and suburban life to suggest that President Reagan had successfully restored American optimism and revived the economy from the prolonged period of high inflation and unemployment that had persisted under his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter. The ads helped Reagan handily defeat his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, with 98 percent of the electoral vote.

George H.W. Bush’s “Revolving Door” (1988)

This crushing ad attacked a program that Democratic presidential challenger Michael Dukakis had supported while he was governor of Massachusetts, allowing prisoners to be released on weekend furloughs. The ad capitalized on the case of Willie Horton,  a Massachusetts state prison inmate and one of the program’s participants, who in 1987 raped a woman while on weekend furlough. The black-and-white ad successfully cast doubt on Dukakis’ ability to govern and protect public safety, striking a major blow to his campaign.

Bush won with 80 percent of the electoral vote.

Bill Clinton’s “Man From Hope” (1992)


An edited down version of a much longer biographical film shown at the 1992 Democratic Convention, this commercial widely considered among the most compelling biographical ads ever made. Emphasizing Clinton’s small town roots it conveys the candidate’s strong work ethic, wisdom and sense of humanity.

Clinton defeated Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush with 69 percent of the electoral vote.

George W. Bush’s “Windsurfing” (2004)

The most effective and memorable ad of the 2004 election, this  drove home the Bush campaign’s consistent allegation that Democratic challenger John Kerry was a “flip-flopper” who merely tailed the political winds.

Bush won with 53 percent of the electoral vote.

Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” Web Ad (2008)


Among the most unconventional campaign ads to date, this was only available on the web. Produced by Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas and Jesse Dylan (Bob Dylan’s son), the ad put music to Obama’s New Hampshire primary concession speech (after he lost the state to Hilary Clinton). It features a succession of over 30 celebrity performers singing his words. First posted on YouTube, the video quickly went viral, with over 26 million views in just a few days. It led to an online fundraising boom and a new wave of momentum for Obama’s campaign.

Obama beat his Republican challenger John McCain with 68 percent of the electoral vote.

Author

Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @KQEDlowdown

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