Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Museum of propaganda, literally, again

The Living Room Candidate, the Museum of the Moving Image’s web archive of presidential campaign commercials going back to 1952, is a treasure trove of the most important and expensive form of modern propaganda. More than $100 million had been spent on primary ads just by the end of January, and by the end of July Obama and McCain had spent a combined $50 million on general-election spots. What this could all add up to by Nov. 4 is mind-boggling.

[Update: In January the Federal Election Commission projected that total campaign costs could exceed $1 billion. In August Obama raised $66 million — a one-month record for anybody — and this Tuesday he scared up $11 million in two back-to-back Hollywood fund-raisers.]

The general story is as you’d expect: it goes from happy-go-lucky jingles in the “I Like Ike” era to more, ahem, sophisticated forms of manipulation. The big milestone is usually considered to be Johnson’s “Daisy” commercial in 1964, in which a young girl counts off the petals of a flower and then an atomic bomb abruptly explodes — the idea being that “the stakes are too high” to vote for what’s-his-name, Barry Goldwater.

The ’60s and ’70s in general have the most interesting ads, with what seem to be the most creative influence from Madison Avenue; by the ’80s the ads are dominated by the familiar dumbed-down formulaics of montage biographies and fear-mongering. But watch this 1968 spot for Nixon, which has no script at all, but instead uses strange, psychedelic imagery to suggest that Hubert Humphrey would use some sort of psycho-sonic distortion weapon to give everybody a really, really bad trip:

For hard-core campaign ad analysis, take a look at the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

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