Nearly 60 Years of Presidential Ads – Part 2

Tuesday’s article was the first part in a mission to examine campaign ads from past presidential campaigns in the United States. We made it all the way to 1972, and will continue today’s post at 1976. As noted earlier, these videos all come from The Living Room Candidate (www.livingroomcandidate.org). It is a fantastic website which has compiled ads from the last half century. These are unfortunately youtube versions, as the videos from the website would not embed. As you can see, many of the themes from modern television ads have not changed from when they were made thirty years ago.

In 1976, Gerald Ford had completed Richard Nixon’s second term. In his campaign ad, the voice touts his experience and leadership as reasons why he should stay in the White House. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter’s ad also discusses his leadership, but note it is a different kind of leadership, one that will restore American confidence in government.


By 1980, Carter’s chance of reelection looked slim. The economy was a mess, his foreign policy was seen as weak, and the energy crisis had not been resolved. To combat this, Carter decided upon ads which did not state facts (as there weren’t many that were in his favour). Rather he played up his dedication to the office, stating he was the one best prepared to make decisions. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan’s ads stated how he cleaned up the mess in California, and implied he would do the same for the country. The ad boasts it is “his time”.


Moving on to 1984, the Reagan team created some of the most memorable ads in their reelection bid. One of the most well known ads is the one discussing the bear, which was analogous to the Soviet Union. The one shown below is known as the “Prouder, Stronger, Better” ad. People enjoyed the soothing voice which discussed how good things had been since Reagan took office, and reminded them they did not want to go back. Walter Mondale used his running mate Geraldine Ferraro prominently in this ad, which is aimed at the working class and seniors, fighting back against a president who protected the rich.


The election of 1988 saw a vacant White House and a chance for the Democrats to reagin control. Unfortunately, the Bush campaign ended the Democrats’ dream with two television ads. The first was entitled “Tank Ride” and raised concerns about Michael Dukakis being Commander in Chief. The second one, shown below, is the infamous Willie Horton ad, which ties Dukakis to a convicted murderer and was very effective for the Bush campaign. Dukakis refused to fight back with attack ads of his own. As such, he failed to counter Bush’s claims and lost the election. His ads were far more positive, highlighting his accomplishments as governor.


In 1992, President Bush had very high approval ratings following success in Operation Desert Storm. That is what they expected to frame the campaign on, but the economy began to tank, and the Democrats took full advantage of it. In this ad by President Bush, he opens talking about war, but is forced to discuss jobs and the economy. Bill Clinton was given ammunition when Bush promised no new taxes, then was forced to renege on that promise. They use Bush’s own words against him in this ad.


I would argue that by this point, ads had become less about the candidate and more about bashing your opponent. It began in 1988, and now monopolizes television ads by the parties. The first ad, by the Clinton team, doesn’t mention the president’s name once. Rather it trashes his Republican opponent. Ads by Bob Dole were similar in nature. This ad, criticizing Clinton’s drug policy, never mentions Dole by name, it simply trashes President Clinton. This is when negative attack ads become cemented into the fabric of television campaign ads, in my opinion.


I said on Tuesday that I would take the ads all the way up to 2008, but I think that you have seen enough. The ads from 2000, 2004 and 2008 are still quite fresh, and deserve some time, so that we can look upon them with the appropriate historical context. As with Tuesday’s ads, do you have a favourite? Is there a trend you can decipher from the ads? Do you long for (as I do) ads which speak about the candidate’s strengths, as opposed to the opponent’s weaknesses, as was generally the case before 1988?

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About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on February 17, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. im loving the different ads! very cool post!

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