In the months leading up to the 1952 presidential election, the campaigns were having a vigorous debate—about television. President Harry Truman had declined to run for another term, and the contest was shaping up between Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Republicans. At this point in history, around 35 percent of Americans had a television set in their home, enough to finally take TV seriously as a medium. But which campaign would go first? Both nominees initially resisted, thinking TV ads beneath the office. While Eisenhower had qualms, his opponent Stevenson was defiant and dismissive: “This isn’t a soap opera, this isn’t Ivory soap versus Palmolive.” For those same lofty reasons, the dominant TV networks at the time, NBC and CBS, tried to convince the campaigns not to buy television time.
That, of course, won’t be an issue during the 2020 election. More than $6,500,000,000—yes, that’s billions—are projected to be spent on advertising for the upcoming race between President Donald Trump and presumptive nominee Joe Biden. With COVID-19 changing the landscape, the actual spend is anyone’s guess, but there is one certainty: Just as political TV ads have historically appealed to voter emotions, the 2020 ads will pull your heart strings in one way or the other—doubling down on fear and anger or inspirationally nudging you towards hope and pride.
All of these themes were going to be explored in I Approve This Message, an exhibition about the emotional impact of political advertising in a landscape altered by the internet that was to open at the New-York Historical Society this September. The COVID-19 lockdown halted those plans, but we want to share a few of the exhibition’s themes, particularly as we barrel towards election day on Nov. 3.
In this first of three posts, we’re going to look at some of the most memorable TV campaign spots of years past and the emotions they inspire. Studies show that we as viewers feel first and think later. Once a choice is made, facts rarely change our minds, even for the most educated among us. So the most memorable campaigns aim for our hearts and run the gamut from stirring to downright dirty, as seen in the classic TV ads below. (You can also watch a video compilation of the 9 ads here.)