Forget the Super Bowl: Which Political Ad Was the All-Time MVP?
As the world gathered around TVs and couches this Sunday to watch the Giants vanquish the Patriots, they also saw the Return of Ferris, Adriana Lima (twice), Motley Crue and the latest musical-flavored spot from Pepsi -- all examples of some of the best big-budget celebrity endorsements and clever creative that our industry has to offer. Several Super Bowl ads in the past have been game-changers in launching products, selling beer, shifting the category leader in key industries, entertaining audiences and even lifting the spirits of entire cities. But few -- if any -- Super Bowl ads have changed the course of our country, or, for that matter, history.
Like them or not, political ads -- our frequently underfunded, low-production value, underappreciated, ugly stepsisters -- have changed the course of our country and, in some cases, our history.
As it's an election year, Ad Age asked me to put together a list of "The Top 10 Game-Changing Political Ads of All Time ." Kinda weighty stuff, and who the hell wants to shoulder that burden alone? So I roped in what I believe are some of the folks (living that is ) who'd make up the Mount Rushmore* of Political Advertising to be on my celebrity panel of judges: former TV producer-turned political ad pioneer-turned media mogul Roger Ailes; the Godfather of online campaigning and long-time Democratic adman Joe Trippi; and the creative genius who is considered one of the best-ever Republican media consultants, Mike Murphy.
Given that trying to determine "the best" is so damn subjective, we went for the "Top 10 Game-Changers" -- ads that truly set a narrative in place and in many cases single-handedly turned the course of a campaign. To put these political spots in appropriate perspective, think of them as advertising versions of a David Tyree off-the-top-of -the-helmet grab, a clutch Adam Vinatieri field goal, or even an amazingly acrobatic Lynn Swann diving catche to seal The Big One.
1. Peace, Little Girl ("Daisy")
Candidate: President Lyndon Johnson
Consultant/Creator: Tony Schwartz
The most famous, or infamous, political ad of all time depicts a little girl in a field pulling petals off of a daisy, then cuts to a nuclear mushroom cloud. The ad aired only once, just after Labor Day in 1964. President Johnson's team pulled the controversial ad the very next day, stoking even more coverage and discussion of the ad and driving voters' fears about nuclear war and a potential Goldwater presidency. After "Daisy" aired, the race was never close, and Johnson won in a landslide.
2. Prouder, Stronger, Better ("Morning in America")
Candidate: President Ronald Reagan
Consultant/Creator: Hal Riney
In the wake of the economic troubles of the '70s and the Iran hostage crisis, this ad is credited with putting words and images to what the Reagan campaign described as "a nation's restored confidence." Though officially titled "Prouder, Stronger, Better," the phrase "Morning in America" used in the spot became the metaphor that framed the debate for the entire 1984 campaign and is now considered one of the greatest advertisements -- political or non-political -- in history.
3. Tank Ride
Candidate: George H.W. Bush
Consultant/Creator: Roger Ailes
The image of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis riding on a tank wearing a dopey grin and a ginormous helmet will forever be associated with the former Democratic nominee and his failed campaign. Talk about a game-changer; this one had a devastating effect on his presidential campaign. Many forget that at the time Dukakis was more than 20 points ahead of George H.W. Bush in the polls.
4. Yes, We Can
Candidate: Barack Obama
Consultant/Creator: Will.i.am and Jesse Dylan
Fittingly, one of the most unconventional ads on our list wasn't produced by a political consultant, but rather by Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas and Jesse Dylan, who is Bob Dylan's filmmaker son. The simple, yet elegant four-minute-and-30-second ad put music to Barack Obama's New Hampshire Primary concession speech and featured a parade of over 30 celebrity supporters singing the candidate's words. Originally posted on YouTube, "Yes, We Can" received over 26 million views within a matter of days, creating an internet sensation, an online fundraising boon and a much-needed wave of momentum for a campaign that was surprised by a Hillary comeback in New Hampshire.
5. Man in the Arena
Candidate: Richard Nixon
Consultant/Creator: Roger Ailes
The original long-form political ad/paid programming was created by a young, former producer for the Mike Douglas Show, Roger Ailes. It was designed to reintroduce Richard Nixon, who had lost in his campaigns for president (1960) and governor of California (1962). Taking its name from a famous Teddy Roosevelt speech, the half talk-show, half town-hall format went a long way in rehabilitating Nixon's image with the voters and helped his campaign bypass the media in a fashion and format that nearly every presidential campaign from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton to Newt Gingrich has tried to replicate.
6. America First
Candidate: George H.W. Bush
Consultant/Creator: Mike Murphy
The heady days of 89% approval ratings after the successful Gulf War were a distant memory when President Bush's reelection campaign entered the Michigan Primary in 1992. With an economy heading into the tank and support within the GOP base doing the same after the president broke his "no new taxes" pledge, the Bush campaign received a stinging rebuke in New Hampshire, losing nearly 40% of the vote to CNN commentator turned populist Pat Buchanan. The "Pitchforks for Pat" movement seemed poised for success in Michigan, where the economy was soft and the auto industry was hurting. That was, until the Bush team unveiled a scathing ad that cut the core out of Buchanan's populist message -- detailing that the candidate once called U.S.-made cars "lemons" and saying while "it is America first in his political speeches, it's a foreign-made car (visual of a Mercedes-Benz) in his driveway."
Game, set, match, Bush. Buchanan's campaign never recovered. That said, the Michigan offensive was probably the high-water mark of the Bush-Quayle reelect efforts.
7. Hound Dog
Candidate: Mitch McConnell
Consultant/Creator: Roger Ailes
In one of the first political ads to use satire to go after an opponent, ads for the campaign of Mitch McConnell featured bloodhounds desperately searching for "missing" incumbent Senator Dee Huddleston, as the narrator detailed all the junkets he took and votes he missed. McConnell's campaign overcame a 40-point-plus deficit after the game-changing "Hound Dog" first aired. The classic spots end with the tagline, "Switch to Mitch." And Kentucky voters did just that . Since then, Mitch McConnell has been reelected four times and has been a fixture in Senate leadership for the past 14 years.
8. Dean for America
Candidate: Howard Dean
Consultant/Creator: Joe Trippi
One blast email and a Google AdSense campaign announcing the launch of the first campaign "blog" changed the modern political advertising world forever and catapulted a fiery former physician to the top of the pack of the Democrats hoping to take down President George W. Bush.
While this certainly is the oddball of "ads" on our list, if we're identifying top game-changers in political advertising, our list would be incomplete without The Howard Dean Experience.
BlogforAmerica decentralized the modern political campaign and directly linked fundraising with "people-powered" activity, taking the Dean campaign from a mere $91,000 and 439 donors nationwide to shattering political fundraising records and creating a new benchmark for campaign engagement.
Candidate: George W. Bush
Consultant/Creator: Mark McKinnon
While the "Swift Boat" ads get a lot of attention for dinging voter perceptions of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, no ad was more impactful -- and more devastating -- to the Kerry campaign than "Windsurfing." Set to classical music with images of Kerry windsurfing in a wetsuit and wraparound shades, it gave a visual metaphor to Republican charges that Kerry flip-flopped (aided by his own admission that he "voted for funding troops in Iraq before he voted against it") on the issues. Additionally, by highlighting Kerry's sport hobby, it encouraged the "Eastern elitist" narrative about the Massachusetts senator. The 2004 election proved to be a barn-burner on election night, but after "Windsurfing," the Kerry campaign had a hard time getting back on the offense.
10. Sleeping Bear
Candidate: Joe Lieberman
Consultant/Creator: Carter Eskew
To round out our list, animals, skipped votes and missing incumbents strike again, as a cartoon of a lazy hibernating bear helped to launch the career of then-Connecticut Attorney General Joe Lieberman and take down one of the titans of politics in the Nutmeg State. In a campaign against former Governor and incumbent Senator Lowell Weicker, Lieberman -- the guy who is annually named "the nicest politician" by Washingtonian Magazine -- "introduced the first media campaign to emphasize the negative in the gentlemanly modern-day history of Connecticut politics," said The New York Times. The bear, who had an uncanny resemblance to the burly Weicker, was shown to sleep through important Senate votes and was accompanied by the tagline: "Could it make a difference if Joe Lieberman was fighting for us in the Senate? Do bears sleep in the woods?" Who said nice guys finish last (and don't know how to wield a knife)?
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Like NFL players who love the spoils of their profession, but play for the Super Bowl ring, many in political advertising play to create change and, in some cases, alter the course of our country. There is no Canton for "The Super Bowl of Political Ads," (though the University of Oklahoma has a pretty impressive archive), but there are the annals of history and, of course, there's YouTube. Would we have a President Obama without an LBJ second term that brought our country civil rights? Would the Soviet Union have crumbled without the pressure and policies of Ronald Reagan? You can debate which ads are deserving of "The Top 10 Game-Changers of All-Time " as much as you can debate the results of these ads. Tell us where we're right and tell us where we're wrong. Enjoy. And as they say in some parts: Vote early. And vote often.
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*And yes, given that this crew of judges truly is the Mount Rushmore of Political Advertising, some of their own ads appear on this list, but all judges abstained from nominating and voting on their own work.