The history of political TV ads

"I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence. This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."

-Adlai Stevenson, 1952

"Television is not a gimmick, and nobody will ever be elected to major office without presenting themselves well on it."

- Roger Ailes to Richard Nixon, 1968

Seemingly contradictory quotes related to political advertising, and yet both correct. There's no question that many, if not most, campaign ads are as insulting to the viewer's intelligence as a teddy bear selling toilet tissue, and yet no candidate would dare run a campaign without them. (Although "representing themselves well" is not always considered to be as important as how they represent the opponent.)

Campaign ads have been interrupting television viewing since 1952, and have ranged from such benign concepts as "I Like Ike" to this year's innovation of interspersing images of political opponents with clips of Adolf Hitler. The Living Room Candidate looks at more than 50 years of presidential campaign advertising, and leaves any final conclusions about their "progress" to the viewer.

Launched in June by the American Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate is an updated and expanded version of a site that was online during the year 2000 election campaign - and if you're interested in the subject matter, this new and improved site is going to require more than a single visit.

With more than 250 ads, equating to nearly four hours of playing time, Candidate begins its collection with the first television campaigns of 1952 and offers examples from every election year up to and including 2004. (Even more will be added as they become available.) Fortunately for both the serious student and the casual browser, the site is exceptionally well organized, and various navigation methods exist to help you make your way through the collection.

After a momentary pause at the site's splash page, Candidate loads a brief introduction to the collection, complete with a "Now Playing" ad - embedded in the home page - to give new visitors a sample of what's ahead. The first time you access a featured ad, you'll be asked to select between high or low bandwidth file sizes and RealMedia or MediaPlayer viewers. (The lack of a QuickTime option being the site's only major flaw.) You can change your preferences at any time via the Settings button at the bottom of the ad's window, as well as choose to have the ad open in an external window, while a Transcript button allows visitors to study or copy the text, or simply sample the content before committing to a video download.

(The site's embedded player window holds several idiosyncrasies for visitors using Macintosh computers. For example, the Help page refers to a Pause/Play button in the embedded window where I only encountered a "Play Again" button, unless I viewed the ad externally. Other options referred to in relation to the embedded ads are also unavailable to the Mac surfer. The Help page alludes to Macintosh related incompatibilities - betraying a surprising lack of adherence to web standards given the nature of the source - but opening the ads in an external window is unnecessary if you simply want to play the clips, and even when required, a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the lack of QuickTime video quality.)

Once introduced to the site's various methods of presentation, visitors can proceed to the Index - which occupies the left side of every page and offers four routes into the collection. Election Year sorts the contents chronologically and accompanies each year with an overview, candidate-specific details, and the election's final results. On the right are thumbnail stills from the ads, which will launch the spots in the embedded window.

Type of Commercial gathers selected ads under such style headings as Biographical, Fear, Real People, and Backfire (which features one party's use of the opposing candidate's words and actions to provide real or "spun" self-incrimination). Issue gives the same treatment to such favorite and recurring topics as Corruption, Taxes and War. Finally, but first in the index, a keyword search allows visitors to gather their own collections while using their own criteria.

There's actually a fifth method of navigation as well, separate from the index. Beneath each embedded ad, you'll find a pull-down menu listing spots related to the one currently being viewed. These pull down selections can span many elections, as is the case with a 1964 Reagan endorsing Goldwater ad, which includes a link to a year 2000 Bush campaign spot. While not part of the main index, this method of tangential movement could easily occupy hours of aimless but entertaining exploration.

In keeping with these changing times, The Living Room Candidate also has a section on The Desktop Candidate. This collection includes Candidate Websites (with archived sites back to Clinton and Dole 1996 home pages), a Shadow Campaign collection (with ads by "non-affiliated" partisan groups), recommended links, and online video ads, created by the Democratic and Republican parties. Taking advantage of lower budgets, and the lack of regulation and time constraints, these ads include interactive versions of already existing TV spots, a movie trailer spoof, and even a parody of Monopoly. And if you thought the TV ads were getting too negative...

As annoying as they may be when they're interrupting something you want to watch, and as devoid of useful information as they may be if you're actually looking for guidance, these ads have shaped, and occasionally, even changed campaigns. They are interesting to view on one's own schedule as a component of political culture. In historical context, the collection provides a clear demonstration of how much the technology of campaign advertising has improved - even if the content hasn't.

The Living Room Candidate can be found at


(Although the homepage of the year 2000 version of Living Room Candidate site redirects to the 2004 site, the older edition does offer educational materials not available on the current website. For educators or other interested parties, this link will take you to related materials from the 2000 site, and the 2000 PBS site The :30 Second Candidate, while not current, can still add a bit of insight about the process of actually creating the campaign ad.)

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