Television Ads

The first political television ads appeared during the 1952 presidential election between Republican Dwight (Ike) D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. These early TV ads may appear very primitive to a modern audience. They usually featured the candidate or actors speaking directly to the camera or short, catchy songs. As media and technology have evolved over the years, so too have ads. The simple black and white ads of the 50s changed to color productions with complex messaging and editing. Attack ads, which began to be seen in the mid 1960’s, have become common. These changes are indicative of both the attitudes of the era in which they were created and the technology available to ad companies in those eras.

Whether or not television ads “work” and turn out more voters for a particular candidate are unclear. There have been some studies suggesting that some types of ads, negative ads for example, actually depress turnout. Regardless, both major parties continue to spend millions of dollars each campaign cycle in the hopes of gaining exposure to the millions of Americans who watch television every day. Below is a selection of famous political ads from different eras. See what differences in tone, messaging, and delivery you notice. Think about how these changes might be reflective of both the era they were created and the political environment in which they were deployed.

  • Do the changes in these political ads reflect a change in how we view our candidates or a change in how we digest political information?
  • Have ads gotten more or less informative and revealing over time? Do ads give you a window into the what the candidate really stands for, or what they want you to think they stand for?
  • As you watch these ads, think about what role political ads like these play in the political sphere, and what role you think they should play.

Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign created a series of ads called “Eisenhower Answers America” where the candidate answered a question from an “ordinary citizen.”


The 1960 election pitted Democrat John F. Kennedy against Republican Richard Nixon. One of the most famous ads, “Jingle” demonstrates the continued popularity of using jingles (catchy songs) in ads.


The 1964 campaign between Republican Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson featured perhaps the most famous political ad of all time “Peace Little Girl (Daisy.)” It was by far the most negative ad ever aired, in fact, the Johnson campaign only aired it once, although TV stations replayed it. The ad darkly implies that Barry Goldwater is a dangerous extremist, who, if elected, would start a nuclear war.


The Johnson campaign’s theme of Goldwater’s extremism was also seen in the ad “Confessions of a Republican” featuring a Republican actor William Bogert who said that despite his and his family’s history of voting for Republicans, he’d be forced to vote against Republican Goldwater in the election.


In 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s campaign team released one of the most famous positive political advertisements “Prouder, Stronger, Better.” More often called the “Morning in America” ad, Reagan’s campaign highlighted the successes of Reagan’s first term on their way to one of the biggest electoral landslides of the century.


A change in the media landscape and growth of the internet has allowed for candidates to start producing web only ads. Social media allows politicians to micro target their ads at specific groups of likely or potential supporters.

In this ad, Donald Trump discusses his views on education and Common Core in “Education.”


In July 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign reprised actor William Bogert’s role as a Republican who opposes the Republican nominee in a 2016 remake of “Confessions of Republican.”