It’s not until our two presidential candidates officially emerge with their nominations that the flurry of television campaign ads really begins. Until then, get your political TV ad fix at the ongoing online exhibition by New York’s Museum of the Moving Image titled The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2004.
Launched in 2004, the exhibition, which will be updated and upgraded to include 2008’s commercials, presents ads from every presidential campaign year since 1952 when war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower battled Governor Adlai Stevenson (the first time) for the country’s top executive office.
The low-tech site (there are no links to specific vids or embeds allowed) contains over 250 commercials and nearly four hours of viewing material, and has a searchable database and navigation organized by both year and theme. Each year’s page contains commentary, historical background, election results, and the commercials themselves, which are both entertaining and – dare I say – educational.
Among the highlights in the online exhibition is the cutesy, campy animated “I Like Ike” commercial that is so far removed from today’s attack ads you’ll hardly believe that candidates no longer use catchy jingles. Also on the site is the controversial 1964 pro-Lyndon B. Johnson “Daisy ” commercial, supposedly only shown once, that captures a little girl preciously plucking petals from a daisy until a nuclear bomb explodes.
My personal favorite features a stern Nancy Reagan. “I deeply, deeply resent and am offended by the attacks that President Carter has made on my husband,” she says to the camera like a disappointed grandmother. “He is not a man who is going to throw the elderly out on the street and cut out their Social Security. That’s a terrible thing to, to do and to say, about anybody.”
Despite Adlai Stevenson’s initial criticism that ads were insulting to voters’ intelligence (“This isn’t Ivory soap versus Palmolive,” he reportedly remarked), presidential campaign commercials have prevailed. Since America welcomed television into her homes, there have been ads toting and maligning the character of hopeful elected officials.
Similarly, since 1996, candidates have had websites, and in 2000, we saw the first web-based campaign ads (also featured on the Moving Image’s Desktop Candidate page). By 2004, advertising online was a viable form of campaigning for presidential candidates, and, of course, now they’re all over the web (and a great place to watch them is PrezVid).
But presidential ads are more than just ploys for votes. David Schwartz, the Moving Image’s Chief Film Curator and co-curator of “The Living Room Candidate,” explains the commercials as a “series of time capsules – short films that use all the techniques of Hollywood, including script, visuals, editing, music, and performance – to sell a candidate, raise doubts about the opponent, and compress the key issues of a campaign into thirty seconds.”