On-line exhibit presents 50 years of presidential campaign ads
One of the most enduring and prescient campaign commercials didn't use a word of dialogue. No, it's not the infamous "Daisy" ad used by the Johnson campaign to imply that Republican Barry Goldwater would embroil America in a nuclear war. In the 1968 contest between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace, the Democrats launched an ad that begins as a close-up shot of a television dial. As the shot gradually widens, a man is heard (but not seen) laughing hysterically. Soon we find out why: The TV screen, in bold letters reads "Agnew for vice-president?"
Humphrey was right about Agnew, who resigned amid scandal in 1973, but his clairvoyance didn't win him the election. He lost to Nixon by 812,000 votes.
For the past 52 years, presidential candidates and their ad agencies have used television - which, as Adlai Stevenson complained in 1956, merchandises candidates like breakfast cereal - to try to manipulate voters. The New York-based American Museum of the Moving Image is presenting an on-line exhibit, Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2004. The information-dense project includes historical context, election results, and media analysis to illustrate how the sophistication of campaign ads accompanied the rise of television as the U.S.' primary entertainment medium.
War has long dominated campaign ads, with opposing candidates accusing each other of a) bringing the world to the brink of destruction or b) allowing the Soviets, Vietcong, Islamic jihad, (insert your bogeyman here) to run roughshod over America.
Goldwater blended images of children reciting the pledge with footage of Nikita Khruschev avowing that American children would someday be Communists. Nixon showed a hand sweeping away toy soldiers to insinuate McGovern, the peace candidate, was soft on defense.
"Reagan scares me," states a timid woman appearing in a pro-Carter ad in 1979, but apparently not enough, because the Gipper won by a landslide. Walter Mondale tried scare tactics in 1984, criticizing Reagan's Star Wars program with satellite images of the earth being obliterated. Instead, Mondale was obliterated.
Candidates have wooed the women and minority votes, considered key to their election strategies. Eisenhower courted the women's vote using his wife Mamie, female narrators, and testimonials from homemakers. Blacks also were shown as Eisenhower supporters - the president integrated the military by executive order - even though they still had to pay poll taxes. Forty-four years before Latinos became the U.S.' largest minority group, Jackie Kennedy appeared in an ad speaking Spanish.
In the late '60s, candidates used popular culture to show how hip (or with Pearl Bailey's endorsement of Gerald Ford, unhip) they were, or to allude to the degeneracy of their opponents. In attacking Humphrey, Nixon used psychedelic imagery - in color - and what was then considered menacing rock music to reinforce the unrest and violence erupting in the streets, as if Humphrey, not Vietnam or the struggle for Civil Rights, were responsible.
For the first time, the 2004 presidential race is exploiting the web, which lacks the time and taste constraints of television while spreading information quickly and cheaply. Kerry's animated "Middle Class Squeeze" carries a late '60s feel, while Bush released a futuristic interactive site in which you can click on a weapon to read information regarding its firepower and Kerry's defense plan.
Since 1952, campaign ads have become less important because of the 24-hour news cycle that keeps political candidates in viewers' faces. And while you can admire the commercials for their audacity, you can't respect them for their truth. •
By Lisa Sorg