The Living Room Candidate

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 “Television is no gimmick, and nobody will ever be elected to major office again without presenting themselves well on it.” -Television producer and Nixon campaign consultant Roger Ailes, 1968 In a media-saturated environment in which news, opinions, and entertainment surround us all day on our television sets, computers, and cell phones, the television commercial remains the one area where presidential candidates have complete control over their images. Television commercials use all the tools of fiction filmmaking, including script, visuals, editing, and performance, to distill a candidate’s major campaign themes into a few powerful images. Ads elicit emotional reactions, inspiring support for a candidate or raising doubts about his 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. The Living Room Candidate contains more than 300 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 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.
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The Living Room Candidate

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.
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The Living Room Candidate

Ike liked TV: Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign was the first to use TV ads to troll for votes. This image was among that campaign’s earliest. Museum of the Moving Image hide caption toggle caption Museum of the Moving Image Starting in the ’50s, TV became an indispensable tool in any presidential candidate’s belt. David Schwartz, Chief Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, talks with Terry Gross about some of the earliest campaign ads — and the most influential ones. Schwartz lectures in the cinema-studies program at New York’s Purchase College, and he helped curate The Living Room Candidate, an online exhibition surveying campaign ads from 1952 through the present. The project can be experienced online at LivingRoomCandidate.org, where ads from the current campaign season will be posted starting in September.
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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.
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The very first televised campaign ads were launched in the 1952 presidential race. Leading the charge was Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower (and his running mate Richard Nixon). The campaign spent roughly $1.5 million on ads, twice that of Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson. The first series of spot ads, called “Eisenhower Answers America,” featured a seemingly average citizen asking a laughably scripted, leading question, to which Eisenhower frankly responded, staring directly into the camera, utterly devoid of emotion or charisma. The campaign soon followed up with the now legendary “I Like Ike” animation, which gave the candidate a major edge in the race.
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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.
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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.
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In a media-saturated environment in which news, opinions, and entertainment surround us all day on our television sets, computers, and cell phones, the television commercial remains the one area where presidential candidates have complete control over their images. Television commercials use all the tools of fiction filmmaking, including script, visuals, editing, and performance, to distill a candidate’s major campaign themes into a few powerful images. Ads elicit emotional reactions, inspiring support for a candidate or raising doubts about his 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.
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The Living Room Candidate (www.livingroomcandidate.org) 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.
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The Living Room Candidate can help teachers provide students with a more-recent look at this trend.  Kennedy’s Catholicism was also scrutinized in 1960.  For teachers interested in this topic, and for teachers interested in the history of presidential campaign television commercials, this website provides a poignant video.  This video depicts Kennedy defending his ability to lead the nation as a Catholic while honoring the doctrine of separation of church and state.  Allaying the deeply-embedded (and absurd) fears of Protestant America that the Pope would sail up the Potomac as a crowned monarch upon his election was one of the many reasons why Kennedy won in 1960.  This made him the first Catholic president in United States’ history.
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The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952-2012 This online exhibition presents more than 500 historical presidential campaign commercials from every election year beginning with 1952, when the first campaign ads aired. With nearly four hours of political advertising, interactive learning activities, and lesson plans, this site is a one-of-a-kind resource for learning about the use of Internet and TV advertising in political campaigns. Related on-site programs are also available.
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The Living Room Candidate contains more than 300 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 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.
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Republican Donald J. Trump for president Mike Pence for vice president “Make America Great Again.”Donald J. Trump (b. 1946) is a well-known businessman and television personality. He has never held government office or served in the military. He will be the first such candidate to ever serve as President. Announcing his candidacy in June 2015, he said “Our country is in terrible trouble. We don’t have victories any more,” and he promised to “build a great, great wall on our Southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for it.” Trump has run an unconventional campaign, relying on frequent coverage on television and a personal use of social media.