Federal File

By Mark Walsh — October 01, 2004 1 min read

The Selling of the Candidates

President Nixon.
President Nixon criticizes school busing in a 1972 commercial.
—Photo courtesy of the American Museum of the Moving Image

With the general-election season under way, Americans are being bombarded with presidential campaign commercials. (Well, voters in competitive states are, anyway.) What better time for teachers and their students to stroll through the history of campaign advertising?

The American Museum of the Moving Image, in New York City, launched an online exhibit in July of more than 250 commercials from every presidential campaign from 1952 to the present.

The exhibit, called “The Living Room Candidate,” is being used as a teaching tool to examine some of the most memorable campaign commercials, including President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “daisy girl” spot targeting nuclear fears, President Ronald Reagan’s famously upbeat “morning in America” commercial from 1984, and the independently financed “Willie Horton” ad against Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

“It’s a very quick way to immerse yourself in a period of history,” said David Schwartz, the co-curator of the exhibit.

What is also illuminating is to trace the role of education as an issue in campaign ads. It was barely mentioned in ads in the 1950s and 1960s. In a 1956 commercial, though, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson promised to attack the “crisis” of “not enough schools or teachers.” The tone shifted by 1968, when third-party candidate George Wallace appealed to voters whose children were being “bused across town.” President Richard M. Nixon says in a 1972 ad that “massive busing produces inferior education.”

Mr. Schwartz said one of the most effective spots on education was a 1996 ad for President Bill Clinton showing young people expressing their aspirations to be surgeons or other professionals, juxtaposed with a grim audio clip of Republican nominee Bob Dole promising to “eliminate the Department of Education.”

The exhibit, located online at, also includes Web-only commercials, which have been used frequently in this election cycle and tend to be “much more aggressive” than spots intended for the airwaves, Mr. Schwartz said.