The Thirty-Second Candidate: Political Advertising on Television

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Grades 9–12

Class Description

In an effort to aid at-home learning, we are making selected media for this typically on-site class available here online, including pre-viewing focus questions and post-viewing discussion questions.

This class uses the Paley Center's collection of political advertisements from the past fifty years to illustrate how candidates attempt to win the hearts, minds, and votes of the American people. Students will focus on techniques of political advertising, target audience and demographics, how advertising conveys leadership, and the role of policy in campaign ads.

All classes are interactive, with guided discussion designed to encourage active observation and critical thinking.


Background Information

After the First World War, a rise in the popularity of radio in America led to nationwide broadcasts regulated by the US government through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The formation and development of large networks like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) happened during the 1920s and '30s. Americans tuned in to the radio to get their news and entertainment much like we surf the internet today.

From 1933–44, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a number of “Fireside Chat” radio broadcasts to explain his policies to the American public. They were not thirty-second commercials like you might see today, but were still an effective way of using the dominant media of the day to reach lots of people quickly. After the Second World War, there was a rise in the popularity of television. In 1947 and ‘48, NBC and CBS began their first television “seasons,” with a few hours of programming each day. By 1960, 90% of Americans had television sets in their homes. Thus, the focus of news and entertainment shifted from radio to television. Because networks like NBC and CBS were already big companies with the money to make the change from radio to television, they became the major players in the new television market and are the very same networks we still know today. Although most of us now use the internet for information and entertainment, the thirty-second political campaign ad is still one of the main formats politicians use to communicate with the public to persuade large numbers of people to vote for them.

An important element in creating an effective political campaign ad is to target your audience effectively through the use of images, music, location, and relatable language. The candidate must appear extraordinary and ordinary to appeal to millions of voters.



As a group, provide definitions for the following words and concepts, which will be referenced during the class.

ADVERTISING: Paid communication conveyed by a mass medium that directs public attention to a product or idea by emphasizing its desirable qualities.

BRAND: A class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer. To brand is to create a unique identity for a product in order to distinguish it from its competitors.

JINGLE: A catchy, repetitious short verse or song in a commercial, created to help the consumer remember the product.

LOGO: A product's visual identifying statement, created from a unique lettering style, typeface, or graphics.

MEDIA/MEDIUM: A channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment, such as broadcast or cable television, magazines, newspapers, radio, or billboards. Mass media bring advertising messages to the public.

SLOGAN: A short, catchy phrase, usually more memorable than meaningful, that the audience will automatically associate with the product. Generally central to an advertising campaign.

TARGET AUDIENCE: A specified audience or demographic for which an advertising message is designed. The members of a target audience often share certain characteristics, such as age, income, gender, ethnicity, values, or lifestyle.


Jimmy Carter: "Peanut Farmer" and “Mismanagement” Ads (1976)

Pre-Viewing Focus Question: Watch and compare both ads [Note: the second ad begins at 28 seconds].
Notice everything you can about how they are the same and different, especially in regard to how the candidate looks and what he talks about.

Post-Viewing discussion questions

●    Describe the setting for each ad.  
●    Describe how Mr. Carter is dressed in each ad.  
●    What kind of things does he talk about in each ad?  
●    What is the effect of the different locations, clothing, and messaging?
●    In which ad is he a more appealing candidate and why?
●    Why do you think Carter would make two such different ads in the same campaign year?


Pre-Visit and Post-Visit Information

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A good resource for monitoring campaign advertising and campaign coverage is provided by the Columbia University School of Journalism: Campaign Desk

Learn more about Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States