IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Six Political Ads That Changed the Game

From LBJ’s "Daisy" to Reagan’s "Morning in America," the stories behind the most memorable political ads to ever hit the airwaves.

Four hundred and thirty million dollars. That's the amount of money that has already been spent on TV advertising for the general election, according to tracking data form SMG Delta and NBC News. And there's still four months to go before Election Day.

Given the sheer volume of ads that will consume the nation's video screens between now and November, it will be challenging for individual campaign messages to break through.

But history shows us that some ads can stand out and capture voters' attention. In some cases, those memorable spots can even have the power to influence the outcome of an election.

Our new video series, produced by Retro Report, examines six iconic or cutting edge political ads from presidential campaign history with the political pros who produced them. Whether instantly familiar or memory-jogging moments, these ads helped break through conventional politics, often in ways that began to define the future.


Perhaps the most famous political ad of all time, this early television spot ran on air just once but generated enough media coverage to become a real factor in the 1964 presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson, who had been elevated to Commander in Chief after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was seeking voters’ stamp of approval on his own presidency. In the run up to the general election, the Democratic Party had split over his embrace of civil rights legislation, among other issues. But Republicans nominated conservative Senator Barry Goldwater after a bitter primary that pitted the establishment of the party against the conservative wing. And while Goldwater’s hard line anti-Soviet rhetoric and his language of “extremism in the defense of liberty” made him a hero to a budding conservative movement, it also gave Johnson an opening to use this stark and blunt ad to help him easily win the general election in November.

Morning In America

Things were looking up in America at the end of President Ronald Reagan’s first term and heading into the 1984 election and his campaign team enlisted Hollywood professionals to help tell the story. When Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980, inflation and unemployment were up and America’s standing in the world appeared to be down following the long-running Iranian hostage crisis. Despite a recession during the first years of his term, the economy had rebounded in time for the election year. Facing former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan used the brighter national mood and his tough anti-Soviet stances to win a resounding 49-state victory. Future "warm and fuzzy" ads can trace their lineage to this one.

Willie Horton

When the Willie Horton ad was released in 1988, the tough-on-crime era in American politics was on the rise -- and so was crime. The ad played into people’s fears about crime as well as their racial biases by featuring a convicted killer who kidnapped and raped a white couple while out on a “weekend pass.” Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis supported weekend passes for prisoners while opponent George W. Bush emphasized his support of the death penalty. The ad was detrimental to Dukakis’ viability. He lost overwhelmingly and this ad became a model for outside groups seeking to influence a campaign -- the forerunner to the Swift Boat Veterans and today's Super PACs.


In 2008, long-shot Democratic candidate Mike Gravel released one of the strangest ads in political history. The former senator from Alaska was an unconventional candidate who ran in the primary against media-focused front-runners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. But the “Rock” ad prompted a storm of media coverage and went viral in the early days of viral, online video. It was made to look low-budget and included no talking. It was an unedited sequence of Gravel staring into the camera, turning, walking to the side of a small lake and throwing a rock into the water. That’s it.

It's 3:00 am

After a string of critical losses in the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released this hard-hitting ad that challenged Barack Obama’s biggest weakness -– national security. The add titled, “Children,” also known as the “3:00 am” ad, asked voters who they wanted as commander-in-chief to answer an emergency phone call at 3 in the morning at the White House. It had echoes of Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad but while Clinton did run off a string of wins in the primary following its release, it wasn’t enough to change the outcome of the race. It stands as the most memorable (and perhaps conventional) ad in a historic race between one candidate seeking to become the first African American president and the other vying to be the first woman to reach the Oval Office.

Smoking Man

In the 2011 Republican primary, Herman Cain’s campaign released this video – originally intended to be just an emailed video to supporters. “Smoking Man,” featured Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, giving a pep-talk to the camera while smoking a cigarette. During a time when smoking is being banned from indoor establishments and smoking is rarely shown on screen, the video had a rebellious aura to it and perfectly complimented the improbably candidacy of Cain, a radio host and former CEO who dropped out of the race shortly after allegations of sexual misconduct. The ad stands as a forerunner to anti-establishment mood that dominates today's politics as well as the effectiveness of the fast, low-cost speed of communications today.

"Image Makers: Political Ads that Shaped the Battle for the White House," was produced by Matthew Spolar and edited by John MacGibbon and Ben Howard. Graphics by Cullen Golden.

Archival Materials: Associated Press, Corbis Images, Getty Images, ITN Source, MSNBC, NBC News, Pond5, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Additional Archival Materials: Contemporary news footage was originally broadcast by ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, and WETA. The Colbert Report was originally broadcast by Comedy Central, Hellcats of the Navy was released by Columbia Pictures in 1957, Mad Men was originally broadcast by AMC, Saturday Night Live was originally broadcast by NBC .

Some elements in the title sequence are credited to, licensed under the Creative Commons attribution license:

Retro Report is an award-winning, non-profit media organization dedicated to examining stories after the headlines fade. To learn more, go to

NBC News' Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.