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Lessons from Living Rooms Past

After a presidential election campaign that seems like it lasted longer than the term itself, it’s finally all over but the shouting (even if the shouting is likely to stick around for a while). If you’re looking for something to tide you over until the first returns give us a glimpse of our future, it might be worth taking a look at the past.

The Museum of the Moving Image offers a fascinating way to do that with “The Living Room Candidate.” ( This is a collection of key presidential campaign commercials from every general election in the television age – going all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

You can easily spend hours scrolling through the ads, and everyone who does so will come up with their own observations about our collective political arc. There are also a lot of lessons here about the different ways to communicate a message – and which ones have been successful over the years.

Here are my biggest takeaways:

1) Despite all the rhetoric about this campaign being especially nasty and polarizing, the basic themes that candidates use to break through to voters haven’t changed much over the past 60 years. Populist candidates have always promised to “give a voice to regular Americans like you and me,” and the other guy is pretty much always wanting to “destroy our way of life.”

Some of the ads would fit perfectly with the messaging of 2020 if you just swapped out the candidate names. In fact, Jimmy Carter had some ads in 1976 that echoed Trump, and others that would be a perfect fit for Biden. The 1964 “Confessions of a Republican” film has virtually the same message as John Kasich’s pitch this year at the virtual Democratic Convention – “I’m a lifelong Republican, but I can’t back THIS guy.” (Goldwater was the Trump of the mid-60s, I suppose)

2)   Based on these ads, the idea that campaigns were less negative back in the good old days seems to be revisionist history. Check out Eisenhower blasting Truman’s war effort, Nixon tearing down McGovern, or the notorious Willie Horton ad from George Bush in 1988. You might get tired of seeing candidates drag each other down, but your parents and grandparents probably felt the same way.

3) Finally, the most powerful messaging almost always comes directly from the candidates themselves. Obama, Reagan, Eisenhower, even Carter and the younger Bush – all of them are at their best here when they look directly into the camera, and make a direct appeal.

To be sure, there are successful ads that don’t follow that formula.  Reagan’s “Morning in America” spots and Johnson’s “Daisy” ads each pack a punch from the opposite ends of the spectrum (although the latter now seems almost comically over the top, even by today’s standards). But that kind of spot has to be incredibly well done to break through. Both of these campaigns have become legendary exactly because they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

In general, though, time spent on this site proves that the most basic elements of human-centric communication have always held true. I’ll believe in your message if I like you, if you’re authentic, and if I feel like we have a connection. Talk to your audience like human beings, and you can’t go wrong.


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