This is the second in a three-part series on the world of campaign ads. In this installment, Fox News examines the evolution of the industry over the decades.
It only aired once -- and yet it remains arguably the most memorable and influential political ad of all time: "Daisy," the 60-second spot in which President Lyndon Johnson conjured the specter of nuclear annihilation to frighten voters from backing his 1964 presidential campaign opponent, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
The black-and-white ad featured an adorable two-year-old girl standing in a meadow, counting off petals as she picked them from a daisy flower, endearingly getting her numbers wrong. When the last petal has been picked, the image abruptly freezes and zooms into the black hole of the little girl's eye, while a stern male voice commences a countdown to zero. Then -- a horrifying explosion. With the entire screen consumed by the mushroom-cloud imagery of a nuclear detonation, we hear LBJ's voice, never mentioning Goldwater by name, intoning: "These are the stakes..."
In 2009, Cold War historian Bill Geerhart, founder of the atomic-culture website Conelrad, tracked down the toddler who appeared in the ad: New Jersey native Monique Corzilius, by then in her late 40's, a human resources officer for a major financial institution. Corzilius's father Fred still beamed with pride: "Wow, one of my kids has gone down through the ages," he told Geerhart. "I just don't feel I'm that famous," shrugged Monique. But the little girl made the cover of TIME, and the ad's principal victim, Goldwater, believed "Daisy" changed political history forever, and not for the better. "That," Goldwater snorted to interviewer Bob Costas in 1988, "started all of this dirty, 10-second advertising that you're seeing on television."
While political ads have evolved considerably since the mid-'60s heyday of "Mad Men," much about them remains the same. Actors are still commonly used, along with the most current special effects wizardry. And today's ads and videos, as with "Daisy," often play on emotions in lieu of advancing serious arguments about policies or platforms.
Case in point: the ballyhooed "Basketball" ad. The 60-second spot was produced by a veteran GOP consulting firm, McCarthy Hennings Media, for its client, American Crossroads, the conservative super PAC whose top advisors include Fox News contributor Karl Rove. Crossroads spent close to $10 million to air the ad in 10 swing states over the last month. In the ad, morphing technology is used to age a woman, transforming her, within seconds, from the mother of grade schoolers to the mother of college graduates.
"I always loved watching the kids play basketball," the young mother can be heard thinking to herself, as she gazes out the window to watch two youngsters dribble and shoot. "I still do -- even though things have changed." Suddenly the woman is in her 50's, her hair grayer and her faced lined, as the children, now a pair of young adults, bound through the door. "It's funny -- they can't find jobs to get their careers started, and I can't afford to retire," the woman thinks. "And now we're all living together again." Unlike many of today's ads, which traffic in bombast and demonization, the "Basketball" ad employs a soft-sell approach.
"I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully," the woman rues. "He promised change. But things changed for the worse."
"Dishonest," pronounced Adam Garfinkle, editor of the non-partisan intellectual journal The American Interest. A former speechwriter for two Republican secretaries of state, Garfinkle is also the author of "Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials," a manual for the use of language in rhetoric. At Fox News' request, Garfinkle reviewed a spate of recent political ads and videos, produced by campaigns and special interest groups from both sides of the aisle. He judged the "Basketball" ad an "attempt to blame all the problems that the country is suffering right now on the incumbent, as if unemployment and the structural issues in the economy are the fault of Barack Obama, and have only been generated in past three-and-a-half years. I mean, anybody who understands how the economy works and how the election cycle works knows that this is ludicrous. And yet it is effective anyway, because a lot of people, once their emotions are piqued up and their critical facilities are kind of turned off, it doesn't make any difference what the truth is."
Garfinkle was equally dismayed by a pair of ads developed by the Obama-Biden campaign and the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. The latter is headed by Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House. Campaigns and super PACs are prohibited by law from coordinating their activities with each other. Yet on consecutive days, the Obama campaign and Priorities USA released highly similar ads, each accompanied by a new website with strikingly similar names, and each attacking Mitt Romney's private equity career at Bain Capital.
Indeed, both ads focused on the same Missouri steel mill, GS Technologies, which closed its doors, and laid off 750 workers, in early 2001, some eight years after Bain had purchased a majority share in the company. Both ads featured laid-off GS steelworkers damning the presumptive GOP nominee for his ostensible role in the plant's demise.
"Was like a vampire, came in and sucked the life out of us," a worker says in the Obama ad.
"If we lost, (Bain) made money," says a different worker in the Priorities USA ad. "If we survived, they made money. It's as simple as that."
"They're all fiction and they all manipulate and play fast and loose with the truth," said Garfinkle. "All of these ads, no matter which candidate they seem to be favoring and which ones they seem to be opposing, are completely content-less as far as substance is concerned. It's all about emotion and manipulating emotion. It's all about effect. There's not a single policy issue discussed in any of these ads.
"We used to have serious political conversation in this country among intellectuals and among politicians," he continued. "We don't have that same conversation anymore. We used to be able to look in the newspapers, for example, 25 or 35 years ago and actually find people talking about policy and debating real ideas....And to the extent that our political narrative in this country has fallen into such impoverishment, there's such little context now against which to judge these (ads)."
Some of today's political messaging is as ominous and foreboding as "Daisy." To watch "Three of A Kind," produced by the campaign of Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who competed in this year's presidential primaries, is to find yourself plunged into a world of darkness. The 60-second production indicts the other three remaining primary contenders of the time -- Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich -- as a trio of similarly craven and untrustworthy politicians. "Three men," a husky male announcer says. "One vision. More big government. More mandates. Less freedom."
Through all this, the viewer is assaulted by a barrage of still photographs of the three targeted candidates looking mean or bothered, punctuated by a sinister strings section, repetitive white flashes, typewriter strokes matched to ransom-note letters, and unnerving background noises that sound vaguely like a fist-fight occurring in a darkened closet somewhere. Thirty-five seconds into the spot, things brighten considerably -- color is discovered, and shots last longer than a nano-second -- when Paul makes his first appearance, a noble alternative to his joyless rivals.
Other political videos make deft use of humor. In "Government On Our Backs," produced for the Family Research Council's Action PAC by Ohio-based Strategy Group for Media, an average-looking suburban Dad addresses the camera and says: "Woke up one morning and it was there." Suburban Dad closes his medicine cabinet to see himself in the mirror, brushing his teeth, with a 50-something man in a grim black suit-and-tie combo piggybacking on Dad's shoulders. "Big Government on my back."
In subsequent scenes, various black-suited, tight-lipped men, all embodiments of Big Government, can be seen piggybacking Suburban Dad as he mows the lawn, visits his doctor, and stands in his kitchen. "Get Washington off our backs," he says near the end. "Stop Big Government on Election Day."
The 30-second ad was used in five congressional races in 2010, with the Strategy Group's hired announcers substituting in the names of different lawmakers whom the PAC wanted to see ousted in that year's midterm elections.
For all the power of ads to evoke emotions, however, industry professionals denied such messaging is decisive to election outcomes.
"It very much doesn't decide elections," said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks political advertising and spending. "But it is absolutely the most visible face of the campaign. And I like to say that advertising is a 'tell.' We don't get to sit in the war rooms of the campaigns. We don't to get to see their polling. We don't get to see their focus groups. We don't get to exactly know what they're targeting and what their message-testing says. But we can see a lot of that by where they place their ads geographically, when they place their ads, what show they place the ads on, and what they're saying in those ads -- the 'creative' of those ads."