Political advertising has exploded into a lucrative industry, and modern presidential campaign operations devote millions to producing pro-candidate commercials and vicious attack ads to take down opponents at the polls. Are you savvy enough to sell a president?
In 1939, FDR became the first U.S. president to appear on television. But he wasn't shilling for votes at the time. That first presidential TV cameo came at the New York World's Fair and was only seen by a small number of nearby households that had purchased the newfangled technology.
In 1952, "Eisenhower Answers America" became the first televised political ad campaign, which involved Dwight Eisenhower answering questions from the general public about everyday affairs. The innovative approach was a successful Republican Party attempt to steer American voters away from the more popular Democrats.
Known simply as the “daisy ad,” the minute-long slot was created by the advertising firm Doyle, Dane and Bernback on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, who was seeking re-election against Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. The commercial begins with a little girl counting petals on a daisy, and the camera gradually zooms in toward her pupil, which reflects a mushroom cloud explosion. Afterward, an ominous message flashes on the screen urging viewers to vote for Johnson because “the stakes are too high for you to stay home,” implying that not casting a vote for Johnson -- and thus perhaps allowing Goldwater to pull ahead -- would mean siding with nuclear war.
The first televised political ad was broadcast in 1950 on behalf of Connecticut Senator William Benton, who beamed his commercial on screens set up in public areas like shopping centers and street corners, since few Americans at the time had televisions at home.
Americans loved looking at animals on screen long before viral kitten and puppy videos began overunning the Internet. As the 1952 election approached, allegations emerged that Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, was illegally accepting gifts from business interests. To temper the rising tide of calls for him to drop out of the race, Nixon appeared on television with his dog Checkers to tell viewers that the camera-friendly pup was the only business gift he had ever accepted.
Until the 1968 election, the American public was largely uneducated about the inner workings of political advertising. Newspaper columnist Joe McGinnis changed that with his inside account of Richard Nixon's winning campaign against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in a book provocatively titled "The Selling of the President," which featured a picture of Nixon's face printed on a cigarette pack on the dust jacket.
Seeing a political commercial just once or twice probably won't have any measurable outcome on how voters decide on a candidate. According to political advertising experts, a political ad needs to be seen at least five times in a single week for it to influence any minds.
Although the amount of campaign spending continues to rise with each presidential election, the most expensive campaign in U.S. history in terms of the amount of inflation-adjusted money spent per vote cast might surprise you. In 2008, presidential hopefuls shelled out about $11 per vote, which is still less than the 1896 candidates, who spent $14 per vote.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was favored to win re-election, and his ad campaign officially titled "Prouder, Stronger, Better" featured a folksy, reassuring commercial that began with a narrator saying "It's morning again in America." The soft sell angle helped secure Reagan's overwhelming victory over Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, whose best-remembered campaign slogan was "Where's the beef?"
One of the most effective and most controversial ads in campaign history, George H.W. Bush's notorious "Willie Horton" ad portrayed his opponent Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime by showing a photo of black inmate Willie Horton, who raped a white woman while released from prison on furlough under Dukakis' governorship. The 1988 ad was funded by a pro-Bush interest group and not Bush's actual campaign, and it aired only one time -- but nevertheless left an indelible stain on political attack advertising.
Going down as one of the most offensive political advertisements produced, former Texas Governor Rick Perry's commercial proudly declared his Christian faith, then went on to make a homophobic comment about gays serving in the military and erroneously claimed that kids aren't allowed to pray in school.
Under Federal Communications Commission regulations, TV stations must sell political commercial slots at the “lowest unit charge” in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. That legal measure is meant to level the political playing field and ensure that a station, sensing the high pre-election demand, can’t artificially inflate its advertising prices to profit from the democratic process.
In 1992, Bill Clinton's best-remembered slogan was "It’s the economy, stupid!" in response to then-President George H.W. Bush's promise of "no new taxes" and attempts to divert the presidential race away from economic issues.
Although public opinion polls consistently demonstrate Americans' distaste for political attack ads, post-election analysis has demonstrated that they can work -- and often more effectively than positive ones. As outlined in John Geer's "In Defense of Negativity," negative ads are more likely to provoke viewers to research specific candidates and political issues.
Different people have different stomachs for political attack ads, according to research from Wesleyan University published in 2012. Young men, for instance, are the least turned off by political attack ads; people with strongly partisan political views and a keen interest in politics are similarly unfazed.
Later borrowed by the 2004 George W. Bush re-election campaign, FDR opted for "don't swap horses midstream" to court voters for his fourth term, which he won but didn't survive.
Referred to as "microtargeting," collecting personal data from the online trails people leave behind on social media sites, blogs and even shopping sites has become a commonplace practice for big-time political campaign operations. Generally, the information is used to tailor candidate advertisements or attack ads to potential voters based on their lifestyles and political preferences.
Campaign spending surges anytime a presidential race rolls around, but the influx of funding from conglomerates of interest groups known as super PACs super-charged 2012 campaign spending, which was expected to reach nearly $10 billion in that year alone, according to research from AdAge magazine.
Graphic artist Shepard Fairey's blue and red image of then-candidate Barack Obama became so instantly iconic to the groundbreaking 2008 campaign that the Smithsonian Institute later installed one of Fairey's originals in the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2008, the Obama campaign stirred up the masses with its rousing slogan, "Yes, we can." The following election cycle, Obama's team settled on the more succinct "Forward," which was initially criticized for sounding too close to MSNBC's on-air slogan, "Lean Forward."