Campaigns go commercial

Exhibit putting focus on television ads for candidates to the Oval Office

October 05, 2004|By John McCormick | John McCormick,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Sen. John Kerry's actions aboard a Swift boat in Vietnam have been questioned, President Bush has been compared with Adolf Hitler and even Ralph Nader has been accused of being too cozy with Republicans.

Political advertising often gets ugly, and this year's heated presidential race is no exception. But just as political ads play on our collective hopes and fears, they also offer something of a time capsule on American life.

Picture the vacuum-toting housewife in a 1956 ad for President Eisenhower as she tells viewers that happiness depends on being liked by one's neighbors, an indirect pitch for Ike's respect around the globe.

Or the 1972 George McGovern ad that flashes dozens of headlines about President Richard Nixon's Watergate-riddled White House, as a voice says, "This is about the government. This is about credibility. This is about electronics. This is about bugging. This is about spying. This is about thievery. ..."

These ads and more than 250 others can be viewed at a new online exhibit created by the New York-based American Museum of the Moving Image. The Living Room Candidate features TV ads from every presidential campaign since 1952.

"The great thing about these ads is that they can evoke a lot in 30 seconds about what was going on in the country that year," said David Schwartz, co-curator of the exhibit at

The site includes streaming video, analysis, ad transcripts, election results and Internet-only ads from campaign Web sites. In total, the site has nearly four hours of TV commercials.

For many, the Internet is the only way to view this year's ads, even though the Bush and Kerry campaigns - not counting outside groups and political parties - have already spent more than $215 million on advertising.

While ads bombard TV screens in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and other battleground states, living rooms across much of America remain largely free of the back-and-forth that constitutes the most expensive aspect of the presidential race.

With the exception of some national cable television advertising, the Kerry and Bush campaigns, as well as outside groups backing them, have focused their spending in roughly 20 states where polls suggest the contest is closest.

The museum's online exhibit provides one central place for political junkies and students to look at the best presidential ads of the past and present. The ads were collected from presidential libraries, ad agencies, candidates and other sources.

Schwartz's favorite political spot is Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" ad, one that featured a little girl counting flower petals before a frighteningly similar countdown for a nuclear blast.

The message was that the bomb was safe in the hands of Johnson, but not in those of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, his opponent.

"That's a one-minute commercial that tells you a lot about what people were afraid of in 1964," said Schwartz, who defines a classic political ad as one that is either artistically made or extremely memorable.

"The best ads are the ones that work on a gut level that really evoke an emotional response. The daisy girl, once you see that, it stays with you," he said. "Ads that play on fear tend to be very effective."

Television ads became a critical campaign tool almost immediately after TV became a mass medium in the early 1950s.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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