The Living Room Candidate


Still from "Journey", 1992, From the collection of: Museum of the Moving Image
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The Living Room Candidate

"The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process." -Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, 1956

Still from "Laughter" (1968)Museum of the Moving Image

In our media-saturated environment, in which news and punditry blur during a non-stop flow of information, the television commercial remains one area where presidential candidates have control over their images. Commercials use the tools of fiction filmmaking, including script, visuals, editing, and performance, to distill a candidate's major themes into a few powerful images. Ads elicit emotional reactions, inspiring support for a candidate or raising doubts about the opponent. While commercials reflect the styles and techniques of the times in which they were made, the fundamental strategies and messages have tended to remain the same over the years.

An effective campaign commercial must work on an emotional level, creating a connection with the voter. While a strong ad campaign does not guarantee election, it often does indicate which candidate has a clearer and more effective message. It is not surprising, therefore, that in most years, the best ads also happen to be in support of the winning candidates.

The Living Room Candidate website (screen capture) (2012)Museum of the Moving Image

The Living Room Candidate ( contains more than 500 commercials, from every presidential election since 1952, when Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves convinced Dwight Eisenhower that short ads played during such popular TV programs such as I Love Lucy would reach more voters than any other form of advertising. This innovation had a permanent effect on the way presidential campaigns are run.

Peace Little Girl (Daisy) (1964)Museum of the Moving Image

Peace Little Girl (Daisy) 1964 | Lyndon B. Johnson

The most famous of all campaign commercials, known as the “Daisy Girl” ad, ran only once as a paid advertisement, during an NBC broadcast of Monday Night at the Movies on September 7, 1964. Without any explanatory words, the ad uses a simple and powerful cinematic device, juxtaposing a scene of a little girl happily picking petals off of a flower, and an ominous countdown to a nuclear explosion. The frightening ad was instantly perceived as a portrayal of Barry Goldwater as an extremist. In fact, the Republican National Committee spelled this out by saying, “This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man.The ad was replayed in its entirety on ABC’s and CBS’s nightly news shows, amplifying its impact.

"Peace Little Girl (Daisy)," Democratic National Committee, 1964
Maker: DDB: Aaron Erlich, Stan Lee, Sid Myers, and Tony Schwartz
Original air date: 09/07/64
Video courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

Laughter (1968)Museum of the Moving Image

Laughter 1968 | Hubert Humphrey

Spiro Agnew was unknown on the national stage when Richard Nixon selected him as his running mate in 1968. Just six years earlier, Agnew won his first political office, as Baltimore County supervisor. He became the governor of Maryland in 1966. During a floor fight over his nomination at the Republican convention, some delegates ridiculed him, yelling “Spiro Who?” This ad also makes fun of Agnew, but suggests that his election would be no laughing matter. The ad was created by Tony Schwartz, best known for his work on the “Daisy Girl” commercial for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the memorable soundtrack to this ad, the uncontrollable laughter at the notion of Agnew as vice president turns into a painful cough, which serves as witty punctuation. This is one of the rare examples of humor in a presidential campaign ad.

"Laughter," Citizens for Humphrey-Muskie, 1968
Maker: Tony Schwartz
Video courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Convention (1968)Museum of the Moving Image

Convention 1968 | Richard Nixon

This innovative and controversial ad for Richard Nixon ran eight days before the election. It was part of a series of powerful collage ads created from still photographs, music, and minimal narration by documentary filmmaker Eugene Jones. In "Convention," images of Vietnam, race riots, and poverty, intercut with a smiling Humphrey at the Democratic convention, are accompanied by "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." The song cleverly references both the riots at the convention and the domestic and international turmoil of the time. The ad ran as a paid spot on NBC’s comedy show Laugh-In. Sharing the show’s kinetic and irreverent style, it confused some viewers, who assumed it was part of the progam. Hundreds of others called the network to protest its bad taste. The Nixon campaign agreed to pull the ad, but the following night, The Huntley-Brinkley Report gave it free airtime by covering the controversy. As a result of his poor showing in the 1960 presidential debates, Richard Nixon’s appearances on television were carefully controlled in 1968. He refused to debate Humphrey, and "the one minute spot commercials presented Nixon’s views on his principal campaign themes—Vietnam, law and order, race, and the economy," said Leonard Garment, one of his campaign managers.

"Convention," Nixon, 1968
Maker: Leonard Garment, Harry Treleaven, Frank Shakespeare, and Eugene Jones
Original air date: 10/27/68
Video courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Bio (1976)Museum of the Moving Image

Bio 1976 | Jimmy Carter

It is traditional for candidates to begin their advertising campaigns with biographical ads. These positive commercials frame their life stories in the best possible light, attempting to link their personal histories to their political goals. The focus on personality was especially important in the 1976 election, which took place less than two years after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Many voters were cynical about their government, and character became a more significant factor than individual issues. From its modest opening, with the candidate seen in a denim work shirt on a farm, to its uplifting ending, where Carter is shown immediately after a shot of Mount Rushmore, the ad creates an emotionally compelling case for Carter as the candidate who can create a “new era” in America.

"Bio," 1976 Democratic Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc., 1976
Maker: Gerald Rafshoon

Nancy Reagan (1980)Museum of the Moving Image

Nancy Reagan 1980 | Ronald Reagan

In campaign ads, spouses usually play a benign role. They are there to humanize the candidate and to add some warmth. The 1980 ad “Nancy Reagan” is a striking exception. As the ad begins, she fervently refutes the charges that President Carter has made against “my husband,” stating that he is not a warmonger. She then goes on the attack, asking that Carter “explain to me” why inflation is so high, and why he has a “vacillating, weak” foreign policy. Although this is an attack ad, it is presented as an act of spousal defense. Reagan had a reputation as a staunch conservative, and the campaign felt the need to project a soft, safe image of the candidate so that voters would feel comfortable with him. The attacks on Carter are left to surrogates, including Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, William Safire, and—in another memorable ad using footage from the bitter Democratic primary battle—Ted Kennedy.

"Nancy Reagan," Reagan Bush Committee, 1980
Maker: Campaign '80
Video courtesy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Prouder, Stronger, Better (1984)Museum of the Moving Image

Prouder, Stronger, Better 1984 | Ronald Reagan

President Reagan's evocative re-election campaign ads were created by the Tuesday Team, an all-star group of advertising executives including Hal Riney, Philip Dusenberry, and Jerry Della Femina. The Reagan campaign made it clear to the team that they wanted something more effective and memorable than the straightforward "hard sell" ads of the 1980 campaign. The result was an inspiring series of picturesque ads collectively known as "Morning in America." With brightly lit montages of idyllic scenes of suburban life and swelling music, the ads evoked a Norman Rockwell vision of the country, suggesting that President Reagan had restored American optimism. By asking, “Do we really want to go back to where we were four short years ago?" the ads also gently attacked the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale, by linking him to the Jimmy Carter presidency. The voice of Hal Riney, who narrates the ad, is familiar from many commercials, for cars, insurance companies, and other products. According to Dusenberry, when Reagan was introduced to the Tuesday Team, he said, "I understand you guys are selling soap. I thought you'd like to see the bar." The "Morning in America" ads were run in heavy saturation early in the year, during Reagan's uncontested primary run, to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

"Prouder, Stronger, Better," Reagan-Bush '84, 1984
Maker: Tuesday Team: Hal Riney
Original air date: 09/17/84
Video courtesy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Bear (1984)Museum of the Moving Image

Bear 1984 | Ronald Reagan

The familiar, soothing, and avuncular voice narrating this classic ad belongs to advertising executive Hal Riney, who created this spot, and most of the optimistic “Morning in America” ads for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. Using symbolism, the ad features a large grizzly bear lumbering through the woods. “Some say the bear is tame, others say it’s vicious and dangerous.” The bear represents a threat that could be real or imagined. While no mention is made of the Cold War, it becomes clear at the end of the ad that the bear represents the Soviet Union and the lone hunter represents the United States. With a soft, reassuring voice, the ad evokes fear of our enemies and makes a commonsense appeal for peace through strength. When the ad was tested for focus groups, many viewers were unsure about what the bear represented, thinking that it had something to do with the environment or gun control. Yet with its simple, ominous imagery, and suspenseful music combined with the subtle sound of a heartbeat, this is one of the most memorable of all campaign ads. It was the inspiration for the 2004 George Bush ad “Wolves,” created by Mark McKinnon.

"Bear," Reagan-Bush '84, 1984
Maker: Tuesday Team: Hal Riney
Original air date: 10/02/84
Video courtesy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Revolving Door (1988)Museum of the Moving Image

Revolving Door 1988 | George Bush

This stark and unsettling ad from the Bush campaign doesn't mention the notorious escaped convict William Horton by name. (Although he went by William, the Bush campaign referred to him by the less respectable name “Willie”). However, with its release just a few weeks after the independently financed ad "Willie Horton" had generated controversy and national press coverage, the connection was clear. Under the direction of campaign manager Roger Ailes, Dukakis was linked with the case of the African American felon who fled Massachusetts during a weekend furlough and and attacked a young white couple in Maryland. Focus groups conducted in Paramus, New Jersey, in May showed a strong emotional reaction to the failed furlough system, and Bush decided to make this a key issue in the campaign, attacking Dukakis in a speech as "a tax-raising liberal who let murderers out of jail." Because of their strong imagery and underlying racial message, "Willie Horton" and "Revolving Door" received substantial coverage on TV news programs during the final month of the campaign. “I realized I started a trend,” said Ailes. “Now guys are out there trying to produce commercials for the evening news.” The creator of the "Willie Horton" ad, Floyd Brown, also made attack ads against John Kerry in 2004.

"Revolving Door," Bush-Quayle '88, 1988
Maker: Dennis Frankenberry and Roger Ailes
Original air date: 10/03/88
Video courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library.

Journey (1992)Museum of the Moving Image

Journey 1992 | Bill Clinton

The biographical film “The Man from Hope,” shown at the Democratic convention in 1992, took great advantage of two things: that Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, was indeed born and raised in a town called Hope; and that a filmed record exists of the June 1963 Boys Nation leadership event at the White House, during which the young Bill Clinton met and shook hands with President John Kennedy. “Journey” is an edited version of the convention film, and one of the most compelling biographical ads ever made. In his book The Political Brain, Drew Westen summarizes the narrative arc of the ad: “Through hard work, caring, and determination, I know what it’s like to live the American dream. In my home state, I’ve done everything possible to help others realize that dream. And as your president, I’ll do everything I can to help people all over this country realize their dreams like I’ve done in Arkansas.” The film was made by Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, television producers (Designing Women) who were good friends of the Clintons. Focus groups had shown that many voters perceived Clinton as an elitist career politician. The commercial emphasizes work, and carefully avoids mentioning the name of the Ivy League law school that Clinton attended—Yale.

"Journey," Clinton/Gore '92 Committee, 1992
Maker: Clinton-Gore Creative Team: Linda Kaplan Thaler, Linda Bloodworth Thomason

Surgeon (1996)Museum of the Moving Image

Surgeon 1996 | Bill Clinton

"Surgeon" is an extremely effective example of the combination positive-negative ad that is so common today. Often, these ads, which support one candidate and then attack the other, use bright, colorful images for the positive message and murky, black-and-white images for the attack. The commercial uses many of the techniques on display throughout this website: we are immediately drawn into the ad emotionally by its uplifting shots of children talking about their plans for the future; these scenes are juxtaposed with scary footage of Bob Dole threatening to eliminate the Department of Education. The ad then uses guilt by association, linking Dole to the unpopular Newt Gingrich; and it uses footage of Clinton at the White House to take advantage of his position as the incumbent. It also offers facts and figures detailing President Clinton’s accomplishments, to add substance to the ad’s emotional impact.

"Surgeon," Clinton/Gore '96 General Committee, 1996
Maker: The November 5 Group

Really MD (2000)Museum of the Moving Image

Really MD 2000 | George W. Bush

"Really MD," which first aired on September 1, 2000, was the first attack ad of the general election campaign for George W. Bush. With the economy in good shape, and no major domestic or international problems, Bush was attempting to maintain his image as a genial, sincere person. In late August, Bush blocked an attack ad challenging Al Gore's trustworthiness. However, the strategy changed because Gore was enjoying a post-convention bounce. The ad team, led by Alex Castellanos, decided to raise questions about Gore's trustworthiness and integrity. The ad "Really" makes the attack with humor, and with the softening touch of using a female narrator. The woman is commenting sarcastically about an Al Gore ad that is playing on a small television set. As Governor Bush's communications director Karen Hughes explained, "They tried to insulate Bush from the harshness of the message. They put the words in the mouth of an anonymous narrator. They used a woman's voice. They phrased the criticism in a humorous way." Relatively mild by the standards of the 2004 and 2008 elections, this ad was viewed by the press as particularly harsh, with headlines such as "RNC Gets Really Nasty," "Bush Approves New Attack Ad Mocking Gore," and "Bush Torpedoes Himself."

"Really MD," Republican National Committee, 2000
Maker: Cold Harbor Films
Original air date: 08/31/00
Video courtesy of the Republican National Committee.

Credits: Story

This selection of eleven commercials for the Google Cultural Institute Elections project is just a small sample. To see more than 500 presidential campaign commercials from every election from 1952 through the present, visit

For teachers: is a one-of-a-kind resource, with lesson plans available for download and interactive learning activities that are used in classrooms around the world.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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