Lesson Plans

1950 to Present

The Role of Television Commercials in Presidential Election Campaigns

Author: Clifford Gold

School: River Bend Middle

Grade Level: 8th

Time Estimated: 3 days

Historical Background

In 1952, Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential candidate, refused to appear in his own television campaign commercials claiming, "The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process." This dismissive attitude toward the role of television in presidential campaigns changed rapidly. In 1968, Roger Ailes, television producer and Nixon campaign consultant said "Television is no gimmick and nobody will ever be elected to major office again without presenting themselves well on it." In 2004, the two major presidential candidates spent approximately $700 million on their campaigns, much of which went to television commercials. Presidential candidates spend enormous sums on such commercials because these commercials have frequently played a critical role in the outcome of presidential elections. This lesson will trace the role of television commercials in presidential campaigns from 1952 to 2004. Analysis of each of the commercials covered in this lesson will be preceded by a brief discussion of the historical period during which the commercial was created. Student analysis of each commercial will include a discussion of how the commercial relates to its historical context.


Students will:

  1. Interpret and analyze presidential campaign commercials
  2. Evaluate bias in presidential campaign commercials and differentiate between fact and opinion
  3. Identify visual and language propaganda techniques utilized in presidential campaign commercials
  4. Evaluate factors that lead to effective campaign commercials
  5. Work effectively within small groups and individually in analyzing these commercials

SOL Skills

CE 1: Students will develop the social studies skills citizenship requires, including the ability to:

    c) analyze political cartoons, political advertisements, pictures, and other graphic media.
    d) distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.
    e) review information for accuracy, separating fact from opinion.
    f) select and defend positions in writing, discussion and debate.

SOL Content

CE.5c: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the political process at the local, state, and national levels of government by analyzing campaigns for elective office, with emphasis on the role of the media.



Lesson Plan Setup

The teacher will set up this lesson with a class discussion reminding the students what a primary source is and how it comes in many forms. This is a follow-up to a lesson that occurs during the first week of school in which students learn about the differences between primary and secondary sources during which students are presented with a variety of primary sources including pictures, video, paintings, music, sculpture, diaries and autobiographies, and historical artifacts. The teacher will point out to the students that political campaign commercials are another type of primary source that reveal much; not only about the candidate, but also about the issues of the time and the historical period during which the commercials were produced.

Segment 1

  1. Hook: Show the "Peace Little Girl (Daisy)" commercial on smart board (Lyndon Johnson, 1964).
    • Ask the students what feelings they had as they watched the commercial and what they thought was the intended message of the commercial.
  2. Teacher presents a brief historical analysis of the commercial - Cold War, nuclear arms race, fear of nuclear annihilation and the policy of mutually assured destruction.
  3. Ask the students what visual images and sounds they recall from the commercial and how the images and sounds advance the message of the commercial.
  4. Ask the students if the commercial was based on fact or opinion.
  5. Ask the students what the primary intended audience was for the commercial.
  6. Ask the students how the commercial reflects the historical context of the period.
  7. Ask the students to rate the effectiveness of the commercial on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being not effective and 5 being extremely effective.
  8. Explain to the students that now that they have had the opportunity to analyze a presidential campaign commercial as a class, they will be working in groups of two to answer the same questions for nine additional commercials utilizing the Campaign Commercials Worksheets.

    After completing the worksheet for each commercial, students will engage in a class discussion concerning the commercial.

Segment 2

    For each of the following commercials, Students will first view the commercial on the smart board. Each student group may then review the commercial as many times as they want on their laptop. After reviewing the commercial, the teacher will present a brief discussion of the history of the period during which the commercial was created. Each student group will complete the worksheet for the commercial and the class will then discuss the commercial as a whole.

  1. "Ike for President" (Eisenhower, 1952) - first presidential campaign television commercial; use of cartoon characters; upbeat, catchy music; message is join the bandwagon because everyone is voting for Ike; no focus on political issues.
      Historical period - Americans fairly upbeat, public is catching its breath and enjoying life after the Great Depression and WWII.
  2. "Vietnam" (Nixon, 1968) - early color commercial; constant sound of gunfire; staccato use of images of dead and wounded American soldiers and frightened Vietnamese; voiceover accuses Democrats for the disaster in Vietnam; Nixon promises an "honorable end to the war."
      Historical period - 1968-a turning point year in American history, Tet offensive, LBJ announces he will not run for reelection, assassinations of MLK and RFK, U.S. race riots, Democratic convention riots, Vietnam War - no light at the end of the tunnel, Americans ready for a change.
  3. "McGovern Turnaround" (Nixon, 1972) and "Windsurfing" (Bush, 2004) - Ask students to compare and contrast the techniques utilized in these two commercials accusing opponents of flip flopping on several domestic and foreign policy issues. Point out that, notwithstanding a gap of 32 years, the message and techniques used in the two commercials are very similar. Point out that presidential candidates often recycle commercials that have been effective in previous campaigns. Point out that historical context not critical in the two commercials.
  4. "Prouder, Stronger, Better" (Reagan, 1984) - Soothing voiceover and music;
      Historical period - several happy images contrasting the previous four years of the Reagan administration with the malaise of the Carter years which included Iran hostages, rampant inflation and energy crisis; good example of "positive" rather than "negative" commercial.
  5. "Willy Horton" (Bush, 1988) - use of mug shots of Willy Horton, large type text listing crimes Horton committed while on weekend furlough; commercial implies that Dukakis was an accomplice to these crimes;
      Historical period - Bush appealing to southern white voters, national concern about crime, issue of race baiting.
  6. "Tank ride" (Bush, 1988) - Image of Dukakis riding around a schoolyard in a tank helmet pokes fun at his position on defense spending. Point out that when the voters start laughing at a candidate he is in deep trouble.
      Historical period - last presidential campaign in which the Cold War would be an issue, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union begins in 1989.
  7. "Oval Office" (Dukakis, 1988) - Questions the competency of Senator Dan Quayle as vice presidential candidate and judgment of George Bush in choosing Quayle as a running mate. Commercial makes interesting point that 20% of U.S. vice presidents have become president.
  8. "Really MD" (Bush, 2000) - Pokes fun at the truthfulness of Al Gore ("I created the internet") and questions whether Gore can be trusted for anything he says. Point out that this is a common theme in many campaign commercials. Historical context not critical.

    Concluding Discussion: After the student groups have viewed each commercial, prepared worksheets, and engaged in a discussion about each individual commercial, there will be a summary class discussion identifying the factors that make a political campaign commercial effective or ineffective.


All classes will view the same presidential campaign commercials and complete the worksheet for each commercial. The teacher will spend additional time in inclusion and academic classes setting up the historical context of each commercial. Each student group in inclusion and academic classes will include both lower and higher ability students.


The culminating assessment for this lesson will be an essay to be completed by each student at home analyzing and interpreting a presidential campaign commercial from the 2008 presidential campaign, which addresses all of the questions from the student worksheet.

This essay will be graded in accordance with the policy set out in the Essay Rubric. This essay will be due at the first class following completion of this lesson.

References: Web

Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate

    This is the definitive source for presidential campaign commercials. In addition to the actual commercials, the website gives good thumbnail summaries of the historical context of all of the commercials.

FactCheck.org, Annenberg Political Factcheck

    This website presents examples of how political campaign commercials can take a candidate's statements out of context and otherwise twist the truth. This is a good way to remind students that just because they see something on television does not necessarily mean it is true. I used this website in a lesson about political propaganda techniques leading up to the extended lesson.

References: Books & Media

West, Darrell M. Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-2000. Congressional Quarterly Press, 2001.

    This is an excellent overview of the use of television commercials in presidential campaigns. I used this book as a general reference source in preparing the extended lesson and for providing additional background information on some of the commercials used in the lesson.