This year sees not only the political fun-fest that is the US Presidential election, but also the 60th anniversary of the dependably entertaining political campaign ad. Over the years, this underappreciated art form has flourished, and it is about time that the extraordinary minds behind these masterpieces got some of the recognition that they deserve.
Dwight D. Eisenhower kicked off the trend in 1952, producing a series of short videos in which he appeared as a megalomaniacal 1940s grammar school teacher giving stiff, no-nonsense answers to the big questions. These questions were posed by real-life, honest, hardworking Americans; people who definitely did not come across as terrified stooges coerced into asking trite, prewritten questions by threats of after-school detention and a ruddy good caning.
After these early forays into televised public relations, American politicians soon found that by adhering to certain conventions they could be sure of electoral success—or at least of producing a slew of fantastic Youtube videos. Below I outline some of these with what I feel—after one Sunday afternoon’s extensive research—are the very best exponents of their respective genres.
The No Frills Approach
The campaign ad was originally intended as a time-saving strategy: why haul yourself all the way over to Wisconsin to grin inanely at a load of unconvinced factory workers when you can fire off a quick video while kicking-back at campaign HQ and leering at the attractive new intern (Mr. Clinton)? All the same, American voters still wanted to hear the important stuff from an apparently honest, down-to-earth candidate, and how better to do so than with the old stripped back, keep-it-simple, face-to-camera monologue (especially if you’ve got all the abundant charisma of Richard Nixon)?
Richard Nixon – One Man. One Desk.
Threats to National Security
Soon enough, however, avuncular charm alone became too mild to cut the electoral mustard. To spice things up a bit, American politicians had to create a powerful culture of fear that meant voters simply had to tick their name at the ballot box, or face some pretty dire consequences.
Lyndon B. Johnson – Daisy Girl
As we are all well aware, every American parent is terrified of their precious little Mary-Lou being blown to smithereens in a nuclear holocaust. Luckily, the American politician is on hand to prevent this horrifying situation from unfolding, and no one illustrates this better than the dependable Lyndon B. Johnson.
Lyndon B. Johnson – Ice-cream
Him again: here’s a great example of a candidate using the campaign ad to set out a clear platform: Vote LBJ for ice-cream, or Barry Goldwater for the painful deaths of you and all your family.
Dan Fanelli – Does This Look Like a Terrorist to You?
In a 21st century reworking of the classic ‘nuclear threat ad’, Dan Fanelli makes it clear to voters that while the imminent threat of atomic bombs has been assuaged, there are still really dodgy looking blokes hanging out in non-descript warehouses and plotting the wholesale destruction of western civilisation. This video features some welcome self-deprecating humour, and some old-fashioned, no-nonsense racial profiling.
Oh no he dit-int! If you’re struggling to think up ways to convince people that you are the honest, reliable, family-man for the job, then fortunately you can sure as hell bet that your opponent is as woefully inadequate as you are. Tell the voters this: you’ll look good… sort of.
George H.W. Bush – Willie Horton: Kidnapper, Rapist, Michael Dukakis Voter
Newt Gingrich – What Has Massachusetts Given Us?
That’s right: French.
Commitment to artistic innovation has had the side-effect of producing some pretty baffling efforts from electoral nominees. While these videos may not be the most convincing, we must admire them for their courage, ingenuity, and utter insanity.
Mike Gravel – The Rock
An artistic effort by an honest man with an honest surname. Even ol’ Mike himself admitted that he had no idea what the intended message of this video was. He suggests something about individuals, change, and ripples; it looks more like the confusing ending of a fishing trip that went very, very awry. This is also a valuable lesson in ‘not-just-going-with-whatever-happens-to-be-offered-up-first-in-the-brainstorming-session’.
It may surprise you to learn that Mike Gravel has not held any political office since 1981.
Ronald Reagan – The Bear
This one feels a bit like it’s the result of a misplaced super-injunction. I think they’re referring to the potential threat from the Soviet Union… if there is a Soviet Union.
The Dale Peterson approach
Such is Dale Peterson’s contribution to the field that it seems entirely appropriate to reward his endeavours with his own special section. Confined to the murky depths of Alabaman state politics, his ads may not have the multi-billion dollar funding available to the big boys in Washington, but Dale sure knows how to make an earnest campaign ad with a bit of southern heart. His aesthetic is simple and powerful: hat, horse, gun; and his steadfast commitment to dealing with those damned thugs and criminals is admirable.
And so there you have it. The political campaign ad is the ultimate medium through which to reach your voters, and presents a win-win situation for any candidate. Do it right and you’ll create an angry, terrified, and sufficiently confused public who will be raring to tick your name on the ballot paper. Do it wrong and at least you’ll have the genial Mike Gravel to commiserate with over beers and trout—though you’ll probably have to supply both.