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A Political Hit Parade

Insiders rate the best campaign commercials of all time.

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Lyndon Johnson, 1964, “Daisy” A little girl is standing in a field and a voice is counting down, and then you see a big nuclear explosion. It was an ad attacking Johnson’s opponent for being a cowboy on war and nuclear weapons. It was shown once, and there was a big brouhaha when it was pulled. The trouble with ads now is that they are either pedestrian or so vitriolic that they overstate the case. I can’t think of a single good Bob Dole ad. Even the Clinton advertising was nothing super-terrific. Nothing I’ve seen this year has been any good. In local stuff, they’ve been uniformly terrible. It’s almost an embarrassment. —NORMAN ADLER, POLITICAL CONSULTANT


Anti Michael Dukakis, 1988, “Weekend Passes” The Willie Horton ad is still one of the most unique. A third-party group, not the Bush campaign, ran it. When Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, they gave weekend passes to convicts, and this guy raped a woman and stabbed her companion. It didn’t say a black man killed a white woman, but that was the message you got. Race is effective because it divides. The reality is that negative ads are intended to do one thing. They’re called wedge commercials. They divide. You’re not looking to boost turnout and include people in your campaign. You’re hoping to actually send people home. —SCOTT REED, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT

Ronald Reagan, 1984, “Morning in America” It had the sun coming up over the horizon, children playing, and an announcer detailing Reagan’s vision. It conveyed optimism. The ad was uplifting and inspiring. George Bush’s Willie Horton ad in 1988 was the worst. It was a dark ad with a picture of a convicted murderer, Willie Horton. Willie Horton was a black man released from prison by Michael Dukakis on a furlough program. Once freed, he raped a white woman. This ad was sponsored by an ally of the Republican Party, and it was divisive and highly offensive. Yet, it worked. —DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST


George Bush, 1988, “Kinder, Gentler America” The tone of this spot was brilliant emotionally. It softened Bush. It gave him I.D. There’s a soft light, a soft mood, where he holds a baby in the air. It’s beautifully scored. It made him out to be a kind man, almost a father figure for the United States. It was important, following Reagan, that he had that. Most political spots look like crap. This was very well done. There’s something wrong with political ads if no one can remember them. There’s nothing now that hits people right in the heart. Political media works when it is emotional. People don’t vote on intellect. They vote on gut. —HANK SHEINKOPF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST


Bill Clinton 1996, “Crime” As much as I hate to say it, this Clinton ad—100,000 cops on the beat, by Dick Morris and Bob Squier—helped him win the 1996 race. It was run early, and it neutralized a strong GOP issue where Clinton was weak. It was a triumph of both message and timing. In this campaign, the MoveOn people are displaying the best timing. They’re riding the issue waves with great skill. I violently oppose their agenda. But they’re displaying a nimble kind of placement strategy. They’re displaying the most agility thus far. —RICK WILSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST

Walter Mondale, 1984 “Where’s the Beef?” This Mondale ad punctured the Gary Hart campaign in the Democratic primary. Mondale was the Democratic Establishment candidate. Hart, the insurgent, charged him with a lack of ideas and claimed he represented new thinking. Mondale said Hart had no new ideas and borrowed a popular tagline from a then-current Wendy’s commercial (a customer picks up a competitor’s hamburger, bites into it, and asks, “Where’s the beef?”). It was a very effective pirating of a popular commercial tagline for a political purpose. Whether it was fair is another question. —JOSEPH NYE, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Ronald Reagan, 1984, “Bear in the Woods” One of the two ads for Reagan that framed the race and helped demolish Walter Mondale (the other was “Morning in America”). This one tracked an actual bear roaming through the woods and was designed to evoke the Soviet threat that Reagan could see and Mondale couldn’t. The most effective ad never aired was made for Ross Perot in 1992. It featured a rainbow coalition of average Americans making homemade signs and working a sidewalk booth for Perot. It would have made a real impact if it had been aired, but Perot rejected it because it was not substantive enough. —HOWARD WOLFSON, DEMOCRATIC CONSULTANT


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