Our 10 Favorite Political TV Ads of All Time

Our 10 Favorite Political Campaign TV Ads of All Time

Effective political TV ads are often game changers. They evoke strong emotions and prompt desired action, specifically a vote for the candidate who runs the ad. Here, we have selected as our 10 best political TV ads of all time spots that delivered powerful images in a brief snippet of time. In most cases, each of these icons of political advertisements changed the course of a political campaign and sealed the opponent’s fate.

With so many hot races on the ballot this Fall, we decided to pull together a little walk down memory lane for you.

  1. “Daisy” (Lyndon Johnson–1964)

A young girl admires a daisy and picks its petals. A voice conducts a countdown. Near the end of it, the girl looks up and a mushroom cloud created by a nuclear explosion appears. The voice of President Lyndon Baines Johnson concludes with a warning that people must live together or die.

This political ad from Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign doesn’t mention his general election opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater by name. However, it implies that a Goldwater presidency could lead to a war-generated nuclear holocaust. It was revolutionary in that it treated a candidate for president as dangerous. It only ran once as an advertisement, but the networks replayed it in their newscasts.

Johnson defeated Goldwater handily.

  1. “Morning in America” (Ronald Reagan–1984)

The iconic words “It’s morning in America” precedes a declaration that “Today, more Americans will go to work than ever before in our history…” What follows are scenes of a person with a briefcase headed for; children and others raising the American flag, and a wedding.

President Reagan carried 49 of 50 states in his 1984 reelection bid. His opponent, Walter Mondale captured only his home state of Minnesota. Mondale had been President Jimmy Carter’s vice-president from 1976 to 1980 and the “Morning in America” advertisement reminded votes of the stark contrast between the troubles in 1980 and the substantial progress made in President’s Reagan’s first term.

  1. Willie Horton (George H.W. Bush–1988)

Our list of the best TV ads in politics feature two from the 1988 campaign between George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

In this advertisement, the Bush campaign displays the photograph of Willie Horton. While Horton is not mentioned by name, his act of murder while on a weekend furlough program from prison is chronicled. Horton had been serving life without parole already for first degree murder.

That campaign commercial then reminds voters that Dukakis, who was governor during the program and a supporter of it, wanted to do for America what he did for Massachusetts. Bush “41” would win election handily, partly on the strength of that advertisement.

  1. “Squeal” (Joni Ernst–2014)

With the right advertisement, a relative unknown can achieve a national spotlight and office. Such happened for Joni Ernst when, in November 2014, she won election as a U.S. Senator from Iowa.

Prior to the 2014 election, Ernst had served a rural area of Iowa in the state senate. To catapult her into the national scene, the “Squeal” political ad featured Ernst recounting her time on the farm. She bluntly states that she “castrated” pigs, using this as a metaphor for cutting pork barrel spending and waste in the federal government. She stated that she would make big-spending forces in Washington, D.C. “squeal.”

This ad, costing $9,000 to pay for use of the farm where it was filmed, helped Ernst capture win the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the retiring Tom Harkin.

  1. “Windsurfer” (George W. Bush–2004)

Showing inconsistencies in an opponent’s position is a staple of politics. George W. Bush employed this tactic against Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

The issue in question involved the Iraq War. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and oust the Saddam Hussein regime placed foreign affairs front and center in the 2004 race. Senator Kerry sought to use the anti-war sentiment among some in the country against President Bush.

The Bush campaign displayed Senator Kerry windsurfing, part of which included changing directions. This symbolized Senator Kerry’s flipping on the Iraq War, being for it and then being against it. In addition to highlighting inconsistencies, the windsurfing reinforced the perception that Senator Kerry was an elitist from the Northeast and was out of touch with Americans in general.

  1. “Tank Ride” (George H.W. Bush–1988)

Along with the Willie Horton ad, “Tank Ride” helped the 1988 Bush Campaign portray Governor Dukakis as a weak and soft leader.

The genius for this ad comes from contrasting the image the opponent wants to portray — in this case strength as a military commander — with his record of opposing the equipping and the work of the military.

Here, Dukakis is seen perched on a tank and donning a helmet with his name. As Dukakis rides on the tank, a list of weapons programs that Dukakis opposes appears. These include the Pershing II and other missiles, Stealth Bomber, aircraft carriers and missile defense systems.

  1. The “3A.M.” Call (Hillary Clinton–2008)

In a slightly less dramatic way than the “Daisy” ad, Hillary Clinton attempted to impress upon primary voters the gravity of their choice for president.

This campaign spot portrays a young girl and then other children sleeping. Around this time, which the narrator says is 3 A.M., a phone rings at the White House. A phone call at that time normally means some serious incident, often international, has happened. The narrator asks the voter for his or her preference for who should take that call, i.e., who should be President.

The would-be 44th President’s name, Barack Obama, is not mentioned in this ad. However, the message of that ad is to chose Clinton over him because she has the familiarity with international issues and leaders that her primary opponent lacks.

  1. “The McGovern Defense” (Richard Nixon–1972)

In 1972, Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign employed toys as props to attack George McGovern’s national defense priorities. With the sound of military drums, a portion of the toy soldiers, war planes and warships are removed. The narrator highlights what McGovern plans to cut in personnel and equipment, making the argument that McGovern’s defense plan would weaken America’s national security.

  1. “Bloodhounds” (Mitch McConnell–1984)

The current Senate Majority Leader used dogs in his 1984 run for the U.S. Senate. The dogs aided in the “search” for the “missing” U.S. Senator Dee Huddleston. Here, the strategy consists of using satire to highlight Senator Huddleston’s absence from his work to earn speaking fees in scenic resort areas. By telling voters about missed votes, McConnell erased a 40-point deficit in the polls to claim the seat.

  1. “Wolves” (George W. Bush–2004)

A wolf symbolizes something that seeks to devour and destroy. These animals formed the centerpiece of a 2004 Bush/Cheney ad that attacked Senator Kerry and liberals for voting for $6 billion cuts in intelligence in 1994, the year that followed the first bombing on the World Trade Center.

The spot argued that such actions placed a post-9/11 America in serious jeopardy of the wolf of terrorism and that Kerry would follow that course if elected. The wolves represent the greater collection of threats to that security, playing a similar role to the bear in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 advertisement that was the allegory for the threat of the Soviet Union.

Bonus TV Ads

Some of our favorites didn’t make the final list. But, here are a few of them for all you political junkies….

Created by friends of IBPA at Red Print Strategies, these add some humor to the attack. I think we can all figure out how we would like to tweak this TV ad to portray an opponent, right?

  1. Poser 
  2. Spotlight 

Aaaaaaand There’s no way we are leaving these without mention.

  1. Swift Boat Veterans For Truth 
  2. Gerald Daugherty for County Commissioner 

What can IBPA do for you?

Our advocacy services concentrate on polling, digital marketing, mail, TV, radio ads and tele-townhalls. As with many of these advertisements we have highlighted here, we can incorporate statements, video, images and actions of your opponents to use against them. We’re also cognizant that, as shown in the “Morning in America” ad, politics should have a positive side. Our staff will work with you to present your positive vision and how you’ll accomplish it.

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