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Presidential campaign TV ads reveal history

October 3, 2007 |  1:58 am

Here's a current campaign factoid for you: John McCain just ran his first television ad (in New Hampshire). Mitt Romney just ran his 10,000th TV ad--and so far they've only appeared in four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida).

Can you just imagine what the rest of us are in for over the next 13 months?

To help prepare you, we have a special treat this morning. But beware. If you're the slightest bit interested in politics, what you're about to click on is very addictive. You may not get back to work for some time.

Every once in a while you come upon a special website that you can't leave (unless you decide to blog about it). Obviously, Top of the Ticket is one of these special sites. But besides that, we've found one for anyone who's ever been exposed to a political advertisement, even if you're not a political junkie. It's a living video history of television commercials for presidential campaigns from the start of television to 2004.

You can watch the actual commercials roll by in black and white for Adlai Stevenson from 1952 ("the Guv that we luv"). No wonder he lost--twice. It was actually Stevenson's opponent, Dwight Eisenhower, who changed the face of political advertising, thanks to the advice of one Rosser Reeves, a Madison Avenue adman who wrote the immortal lines, "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands."

Until 1952, political advertising on TV was a 30-minute block of time for the candidate in a suit to give a speech to the camera. Like radio with a picture. Yawn. Tom Dewey, the Republican candidate against Harry Truman in 1948, actually rejected the idea of short political ads as "undignified." And you saw what happened to his certain victory.

Rosser grabbed 40 regular passersby off the street near New York's Radio City Music Hall and filmed each of them looking up, as if at a hero, asking a question like, "General, if war comes, is this country really ready?" Ike's answer: "It is not." Looking into the camera, the World War II leader of Allied forces in Europe explained in simple terms what needed to be done. He won.

Click on 1964 and that famous little girl pulling petals off a daisy, when another countdown begins and there's a nuclear explosion. "These are the stakes," intones President Johnson, "to make a world in which all God's children can live or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other or we must die." An announcer adds: "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Barry Goldwater did not survive that nuclear attack.

1988. Michael Dukakis driving a tank all around a field while the announcer lists all the military programs he opposes. "America can't afford that risk."

1992. A much younger-looking Bill Clinton is shaking hands, "a different kind of Democrat." Then he shows a picture of his opponent, George H.W. Bush, promising "no new taxes." Oops. And remember that sharp-talking little guy, Ross Perot? He favored "a government that comes from the people instead of at the people."

1980. Ronald Reagan. "This is a man whose time has come." Jimmy Carter, monotone boasting of four years of peace.

This marvelous website is run by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y. You can watch all the popular political issues change, the styles of attack and boasting, the quicker frame cuts and use of emotion, an entire 55 years of unfolding political history marching right past you by clicking here.

But please come back to us someday.

--Andrew Malcolm