Election 2008


Now that the countdown is on for the presidential election, the ad wars are heating up. The Republicans already have had to yank one Web ad attacking Barack Obama's use of the expression lipstick on a pig. And the Democrats have taken a shot, ridiculing John McCain for not knowing how many homes he owns.

Political ads have come a long way from their earliest days on TV, when you would have seen jingles, cartoons and crooners.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

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Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (Singing) Adlai, love you madly, and what you did for your own great state, you're going to do for the rest of the 48.

MONTAGNE: You can trace the evolution of presidential TV ads on a Web site, The Living Room Candidate. It features political commercials from every presidential election since 1952, when those ads first started to appear. The curator of the site is David Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image, and he joined us from New York to talk about it. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID SCHWARTZ (Museum of the Moving Image): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with those early TV ads. How would you characterize them?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Those ads are just like jingles for products like soap and cereal and detergent. Rosser Reeves, who was the advertising man who created Dwight Eisenhower's campaign commercials, he was best known for creating slogans like M&M, melts in your mouth, not in your hands.

So he knew that you could sell a candidate just like you can sell a product.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

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Unidentified People: (Singing) You like Ike, I like Ike. Everybody likes Ike for president. Hang out the banners, beat the drum. We'll take Ike to Washington.

MONTAGNE: These ads were innocent, sweet even.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, the original ads were very straightforward. It was just the candidate talking right to the camera many times. Dwight Eisenhower did a series of ads called "Eisenhower Answers America," where he just answers questions from voters.

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Unidentified Woman #2: You know what things cost today. High prices are just driving me crazy.

Former President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Yes, my Mamie gets after me about the high cost of living. It's another reason why I say it's time for a change.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: If you look at how things were going in 1952, the cost of living was rising, and we were stuck in an unpopular war. So some things never do change.

MONTAGNE: Ads got a little more sophisticated, at least superficially, but it's interesting. In 1960, the ads for John F. Kennedy were quite a bit snappier, and I mean just visually, than the ads for Richard Nixon. Let's play one of Kennedy.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

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Unidentified People: (Singing) Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, what can you do for me.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: You know, this is a very bouncy ad. We're seeing Kennedy posters bouncing around all over the place, and the Nixon campaign was all about experience and him being the seasoned, mature politician who knew what it took during the Cold War.

So ads are really often not about the issues as much as being about a contrast in styles.

MONTAGNE: Well, even when Nixon was talking about the issues, it's just him sitting at the edge of a desk, no movement, just the camera staring at him and him talking right back to it.

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Former President RICHARD NIXON: I would like to talk to you for a moment about dollars and cents. Now, my opponents want to increase federal expenditures as much as $18 billion a year. How will they pay for it?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: The message was this was a dangerous time and that you could not elect 43-year-old John F. Kennedy - change versus experience, which we've been hearing a lot about this year.

MONTAGNE: At what point did ads change for good?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Ads really took a big change in 1964. There was a very kind of cutting-edge agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, that was making conceptual, kind of innovative ads. They did Avis, we try harder campaign. And when Johnson became the nominee for the Democratic Party, he decided to use the same agency, and they made the most famous of all campaign ads, which is the daisy-girl commercial.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Girl: One, two, three, four…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: First you see this little girl, and she's picking petals off of a flower, and then we cut.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Five, four, three, two…

Mr. SCHWARTZ: And it's a nuclear explosion and a mushroom cloud.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

(Soundbite of explosion)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Barry Goldwater is never even mentioned in the ad. If you're watching this commercial, you are just putting it together in your mind that if you vote for Goldwater, there could be a nuclear annihilation.

The ad only aired one time as a paid commercial. Then it became a big news story, so all the networks replay the ad over and over again. We saw that this year with the celebrity commercial that tried to link Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

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Unidentified Woman #3: He's the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?

MONTAGNE: The interesting thing about the ad was it actually moved to the Internet, where Paris Hilton created a faux ad to respond.

(Soundbite of Internet Video)

Ms. PARIS HILTON: Hey, America, I'm Paris Hilton, and I'm a celebrity, too. And I want America to know that I'm, like, totally ready to lead.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think that the Internet is affecting the style of advertising. If you make a piece of video that the people want to pass around and share because it's clever and provocative and kind of humorous, then it works on the Internet.

So I think we're seeing candidates trying to create ads that are much edgier and more provocative than they used to be.

MONTAGNE: One of the things that has been dominating news lately, of course, is the choice of Sarah Palin as vice president. There is a history of ads that question presidential choices. For instance in 1968 when Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew.

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Mr. SCHWARTZ: So what we're seeing here is a TV set that just has the words Agnew for vice president, and we're hearing this voter laugh. Agnew was somebody who had been county supervisor of Baltimore in 1962, and he quickly rose to becoming the governor of Maryland.

So interestingly, he had about as much experience as Sarah Palin does today. And then there was an ad that the Dukakis campaign did in 1988 making fun of the idea of Dan Quayle being a heartbeat away from the presidency.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: One in five American vice presidents has had to rise to the duties of commander in chief. For this job, after five months of reflection, George Bush made his personal choice: J. Danforth Quayle. Hopefully, we will never know how great a lapse of judgment that really was.

MONTAGNE: Now these ads could be very compelling, except they won.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, I think one of the things that amazes me is that every time there's a new ad that comes out, there was an ad from an earlier election that basically has the same exact message.

Just like Hollywood loves to remakes successful movies, political consultants like to remake successful commercials.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thanks. It's been a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: David Schwartz is curator of the Web site The Living Room Candidate, which is run by the Museum of the Moving Image, and it's just launched the 2008 edition.

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MONTAGNE: See the TV ads you've just heard and lots more at our Web site, NPR.org elections. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, and I've approved this story.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: I'm Steve Inskeep, and this report is paid for by the committee to inform you.

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