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In the summer of 1952, veteran adman Rosser Reeves approached a group of Dwight Eisenhower supporters with a revolutionary idea: why not run television commercials touting their presidential candidate? Reeves -- a hard-sell prophet celebrated for his "melts in your mouth, not in your hands" commercials for M&MÕs and his hammer-pounding spots for Anacin -- had approached Republican presidential hopeful Thomas Dewey about running ads four years earlier, but Dewey had dismissed the idea as undignified. Resistance was initially stiff within the Eisenhower camp as well, but Reeves ultimately prevailed, and later that year Eisenhower taped a series of spots titled "Eisenhower Answers America" -- the first presidential commercials ever to run on television.

While the ads probably had little impact on EisenhowerÕs victory over Adlai Stevenson -- Reeves himself once said, "It was such a landslide that it didnÕt make a goddamn bit of difference whether we ran the spots or not" -- they heralded a revolution in American politics. Just four years before, Harry Truman had trekked 31,000 miles across America to shake the hands of 500,000 people; in 1952 Eisenhower made a single trip to New York to film three dozen commercials, each of which could be seen on as many as 19,000,000 television sets across the country. The age of the whistle-stop campaign was ending; the era of the televised campaign had begun. Today, political ads may well be the dominant means by which presidential candidates communicate their messages to voters. Certainly, they are a vital component of any serious campaign; each candidate must shell out over a hundred million dollars to create and air ads if he or she has any hope at all of winning.

Madison Avenue Goes to Washington: The History of Presidential Campaign Advertising, presented by the Museum in association with the University Library and the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, is a compendium of the most memorable and historically significant presidential commercials created from 1952 through 1996 for twelve general elections. This screening, which includes narration placing the ads in historical context, traces the evolution of presidential advertising from crudely produced, hastily thrown together novelty items featuring candidates in stilted studio shots to intricately researched, rigorously tested spots featuring state-of-the-art production and marketing techniques.

Viewed together as they are here, these commercials also offer a remarkable opportunity to bear witness to the evolving preoccupations of American politicians and, by extension, the American people, from the "red scare" of the fifties to the domestic upheaval of the sixties, from the Watergate-induced anomie of the seventies to the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new world order in the eighties and nineties. Equally fascinating is the way in which so many themes resurface time and again. One case in point: When Bill ClintonÕs campaign advisers insisted that it was "the economy, stupid" in 1992, they essentially were making the same point Eisenhower had made forty years earlier when responding to a question about the high cost of living in an "Eisenhower Answers America" commercial.

The 1950s: Although the 1952 election introduced the presidential-campaign spot, most paid political broadcasts were fifteen or thirty minutes long, preempting regular programming. The most famous of these -- the so-called Checkers speech -- aired on September 23, 1952, when Republicans purchased a half-hour block for vice-presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, who had been accused of having a slush fund. The 1956 contest -- also between Eisenhower and Stevenson -- featured the first-ever negative commercials, from StevensonÕs campaign. Key Ads of this decade: "Eisenhower Answers America"; NixonÕs Checkers speech; StevensonÕs "Man from Liberty" spot.

The 1960s: With sets in nine of every ten American homes, the 1960 campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon demonstrated that television had become a significant force in American politics. Nixon, seeking to keep his distance from Madison Avenue, formed an in-house agency, Campaign Associates -- the first agency ever spawned solely to run a campaign -- and technological advances led to the first on-location campaign commercials. The 1964 campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater was the first dominated by communications specialists like Tony Schwartz, who eschewed hard-sell advertising in favor of emotion-based appeals, and it was -- in the opinion of scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson -- the most negative campaign in American politics until 1988. Key Ads of this decade: Kennedy dismisses fears about his Catholicism; Eisenhower cannot cite a significant contribution from Nixon over the previous eight years; NixonÕs dramatic still-photo spots of 1968 appeal to "forgotten Americans"; JohnsonÕs "daisy" spot questions GoldwaterÕs emotional stability.

The 1970s: In 1972, Richard NixonÕs ad-hoc November Group -- burdened by polls showing Nixon was respected but not well-liked -- settled on the campaign theme "You Need Nixon," emphasizing his incumbency and experience. George McGovernÕs ads, from cinema veritŽ pioneer Charles Guggenheim, addressed the Vietnam War but largely skirted Watergate, as evidence had yet to emerge linking Nixon to the scandal. Key Ads of this decade: NixonÕs trio of "Democrats for Nixon" spots; McGovernÕs cinema veritŽ spots; and the unaired spot by Tony Schwartz in which a Vietnamese woman clutches a dead infant in her arms.

The 1980s: In the 1984 campaign, featuring Ronald Reagan and George Bush against Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, a popular incumbent parlayed peace and prosperity into reelection. The 1988 contest between George Bush and Michael Dukakis is now widely considered the most negative presidential campaign in American history. Key Ads of this decade: ReaganÕs "Morning in America" and bear spots; MondaleÕs Reaganomics spots; the RepublicansÕ 1988 Willie Horton, Boston Harbor, and tank spots.

The 1990s: The 1992 campaign among George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot -- coming on the heels of the 1988 contest -- received greater press scrutiny than any previous campaign, with newspapers and television networks launching "adwatches" evaluating campaign spots for fairness and accuracy. PerotÕs attention-grabbing long-form commercials were a throwback to the earliest days of presidential advertising. Key Ads of this decade: Bush spots highlighting his own military career and attacking ClintonÕs explanation for escaping the draft; Clinton reminding voters of BushÕs pledge not to raise taxes; PerotÕs chart-enhanced budget analyses.


  • DATE: 2000
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:27:25
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: T:60352
  • GENRE: N/A
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Advertising, political; Commercials, political; U S - Presidential elections


  • Tim Russert … Narrator
  • George Bush
  • Bill Clinton
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Barry Goldwater
  • Willie Horton
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • John F. Kennedy
  • George McGovern
  • Walter Mondale
  • Richard M. Nixon
  • Ross Perot
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Tony Schwartz
  • Adlai Stevenson
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