In a matter of days Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will formally accept their parties’ nominations to play in the biggest political game of all. It’s like the Super Bowl, only a bit more important. And like the Super Bowl, some of us tune in for the ads.
With the players set, the real ingenuity begins. The airwaves and web are about to explode and as advertising professionals, we are very, very excited. With the characters in this election we are hoping for some truly extraordinary ads.
What makes for an extraordinary ad? How can it stand above the typical mélange? The same way every great political ad has been made. By moving the voters in one of two ways. An ad can instill a fear of pain to drive voters away from a candidate or it can offer the promise of pleasure to draw voters in. An extraordinary ad is so powerful, whether it be fear- or promise-based, it disrupts the campaign and becomes news itself.
Let’s take a look at two of the great ones and explore what made them so.
Fear of pain at its finest. Arguably the most powerful campaign ad of all time, “Daisy” went straight for the electorate’s jugular with a message that instilled real fear into a nation already anxious about the Cold War. To put the ad into context, Johnson’s re-election campaign was run against Barry Goldwater, a far right extremist candidate whose fiery rhetoric and unpredictable nature made many voters nervous (sound familiar?).
In simple fashion, “Daisy” was successful at marrying a scene of a little girl counting petals with the countdown to the launch of a nuclear bomb and its explosion. Coupled with the voiceover, “These are the stakes to make a world in which all God’s children can live or to go into the dark, we must either love each other or we must die.”, it is wildly successful at establishing the contrast between the candidates. A vote for Goldwater is a vote for nuclear war and death. A vote for Johnson is a vote for love and life.
It’s worth noting that the ad only ran once, during a nationally broadcast, widely viewed movie night program. It was then picked up as news itself on each network’s nightly news. “Daisy” used raw emotion, fear, to accomplish everything a political ad is supposed to. Its impression can be felt today. Johnson won the election with 90 percent of the vote.
The promise of pleasure is an incredibly powerful tool. Created by the Tuesday Team, including advertising giants Phillip Dusenberry, Jerry Della Femina and Hal Riney, “Morning in America” is one of the most effective and best remembered campaign ads of modern times. Rather than hitting Jimmy Carter hard, the spot gently tugged at America’s collective heartstrings. Through slow motion images depicting a sense of utopia, a voiceover celebrating American progress and a simple serenade as the music track, the spot wonderfully captures the optimism of the times.
What’s more, “Morning in America” subtlety lands a jab at both opponent Walter Mondale and President Carter by reminding voters of the malaise Reagan inherited four years prior. “Morning in America” aimed at inspiring hope for a brighter future and confidence in the candidate that can deliver it. It was a success as Ronald Reagan won his second term in office in a landslide.
We include this spot because of the sheer impact it had on the election.
With the wounds from 9/11 still fresh and wars being fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the country was fixated on foreign affairs as the defining issue of the 2004 election. John Kerry was a decorated war veteran who was leveraging that experience as the candidate who understands war and, by extension, foreign policy. It may have worked if not for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In one of the most devastating campaign ads in recent history, a host of Vietnam veterans who served alongside Kerry openly questioned the portrayal of his service and painted him as an opportunistic liar. By doing so they worked to destroy the Kerry narrative and turned what was to be John Kerry’s primary strength into a weakness.
The campaign used stinging testimonials, shot in color in the foreground, sitting atop black and white war photographs in background. The background photographs actually placed each veteran with Kerry. The perceived character of these veterans, combined with their impassioned words, cast a dark cloud over Kerry’s military service. The ad was so powerful that it generated a verb, “swiftboated”, meaning an unfair personal attack so severe it can disrupt the trajectory of an election.
Though widely discredited after the election, the damage caused by these ads was done. George W. Bush went on to win his second term in office.
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Whether you’re voting out of fear that one candidate will take the country down the wrong path or voting for a candidate because you believe the country will be in better hands, one thing is for certain, a campaign ad will likely influence you a tiny bit. You may run into it on TV, the web or even the radio. No matter, if it moves you it worked. If it really makes you think, it’s great.
Here are some other examples of great campaign ads driven by fear and promise.
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