As we blitz through the final month of the 2012 presidential election, and as our television are increasingly polluted with ridiculous ads for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we thought it might be instructive to go back and look at the ten best presidential television ads ever.
Neither Romney nor Obama has made much of a splash with any of their ads so far; at the very least, there haven’t been any game-changers. For this list, we’re only looking at ads aired during the ultimate election — primary season ads are a whole separate ball of wax.
How are we judging “best”? Mostly, we’re defining “best” as “most effective,” though we’re also adding points for creativity, originality and maybe ethical integrity? OK, not so much on that last one. Advantages will be given to ads that helped swing elections — no matter how great Ronald Reagan’s ads might have been in 1984, he was going to beat Mondale even if he ran 30 seconds of Matlock drooling on the courthouse steps. On to the list!
10. Jimmy Carter’s “Washington” / 1976
Carter does an effective job of taking advantage of his outsider status — an incredibly alluring trait to voters, given how many governors have become presidents. And the format of the ad is also an interesting change of pace, focusing entirely on a snippet of a Carter speech, rather than a highly edited montage.
9. George W. Bush’s Windsurfing Ad / 2004
God, this is such a perfect match of music, image and message. Kerry’s windsurfing not only provides a perfect visual for W.’s flip-flopping attacks, it makes him seem like a hoity-toity dandy, engaged in leisure pursuits that we non-elites can’t afford and don’t have time for.
8. Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” / 1952
With its jingle and its animation, “I Like Ike” seems to be from an entirely different political and cultural era than the one in which we currently reside. There’s no negativity here — nothing impugning perennial Democratic punching bag Adlai Stevenson — despite the looming spectre of the Cold War. Just Ol’ Ike, making himself seem cute and likable and nice.
7. Nixon’s “Vietnam” / 1968
Knowing what we know now, this ad seems ridiculous and borderline insane. But in 1968, these were some effective images. This ad is really good propaganda, and makes the LBJ administration look frightening and incompetent. And not for nothing, but “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it” is a pretty fucking fantastic campaign slogan.
6. Reagan’s “Morning in America” / 1984
Disingenuous as fuck, and ultimately without much meaning given Reagan’s aforementioned landslide, but still a highly effective ad. You can just see it luring gullible suckers in by the score with its Muzak and comforting overtones and statistical nonsense.
5. Clinton’s “Read My Lips” Ad / 1992
Like the next ad on this list, Clinton’s team masterfully hoisted H.W. Bush by his own petard, allowing them to play dirty without looking like they were playing dirty.
4. George H.W. Bush’s Tank Ad / 1998
Dukakis set himself up for this one. The Bush/Dukakis election may have been the presidential election most swayed by TV campaign ads. Bush’s were borderline evil and incredibly effective. Dukakis’s were wishy-washy and ineffective, not unlike the candidate himself as a campaigner.
3. JFK’s “Kennedy for Me” Ad / 1960
The highest-ranking positive ad on our list. The dewy-eyed optimism on display here fit in perfectly with Kennedy’s image as a clean-cut hope for a new generation. And the catchy jingle made a nice companion for Frank Sinatra’s JFK-centric version of “High Hopes.”
2. George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton Ad / 1988
The ultimate scare tactic ad, with insidious racial undertones. Michael Dukakis let a black man kill again! And rape! Elect Dukakis, and black men might even rape your wife!
1. LBJ’s “Daisy” Ad / 1964
Holy fuck, yes. It is absolutely stunning that this ad ever aired. It only aired once, but that was enough. “Daisy” is just politically and ethically vile — it’s Karl Rove at his worst before Karl Rove was even a thing. Barry Goldwater was kind of scary, yes, but this ad is so over the top with the little girl and the mushroom cloud and the voiceover that it must have taken men without conscience to create it. But it worked. I’m just sad that Don Draper didn’t create “Daisy” in Mad Men’s alternate history.