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Lesson Plan

Media Lit/Journalism: Campaign Ads That Made History

About this Video
These four-minute videos introduce students to the context and rhetoric surrounding three of the most famous and influential political advertisements in American history: Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy Ad” from 1964, the first political ad to fully harness the techniques of television production; Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America,” an ad that brought lavish Hollywood production values into the realm of political advertising; and George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “Willie Horton,” an ad that pioneered a new, controversial and brutally effective approach to campaign advertising. Useful for lessons focused on the history, techniques and evolution of political advertising, the videos are also useful for exploring the context of the presidential elections of 1964, 1984, and 1988. Accompanying the videos are questions that approach the videos as primary sources or rhetorical artifacts and guide students through an examination of how the ads were designed to influence voters, and why these particular ads were resonant and politically effective. (The “Daisy” and “Morning in America” ads can be found below under Additional Resources.)
Content Advisory: The video "Willie Horton: Political Ads That Changed the Game," includes references to rape, murder, and assault.
  • How the historical context of each election affected the content and rhetoric of each ad.
  • How the rhetorical innovations of each ad influenced the way political ads are made.
  • How Retro Report situated the ads in a historical context – and gave them added meaning for today.
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Lyndon Johnson
  • Political Campaigns
  • Political Parties
  • Ronald Reagan
  • 1960s America
  • 1980s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

The power of political imagery to overshadow party platforms is now a fact of presidential politics, but it wasn’t always that way.

Television was introduced as a political tool in the 1950s, but campaign ads then did little to fully utilize the new medium, depicting candidates standing at a desk or podium, soberly reciting party platforms.

Then in 1964 the Democratic Party hired a Madison Avenue ad firm that changed the game forever with the “Daisy Ad.” It opened quietly with a little girl picking petals off a daisy, transitioning abruptly to a mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion filling the screen.

The ad was only shown once but it was talked and written about long after. It never even mentioned Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, known for supporting nuclear weapons. But it dramatized the fear many Americans had about Goldwater in the White House: he was not reliable.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected in a landslide, and the message got across: Forget policy statements. Create emotions that get out the vote for your candidate.

President Ronald Reagan’s team put that lesson to work in his 1984 re-election campaign with “Morning in America.” The ad showed happy, prosperous, predominantly white Americans going to work and celebrating family events. It ended with the line “It’s morning again in America.”

The goal of the ad was to generate warm and fuzzy feelings about President Reagan’s first term, and it worked. He carried every state but Minnesota.

In 1988, the game shifted again when the campaign of George H.W. Bush outsourced the production of “Willie Horton.”

The ad attacked Democratic contender Michael Dukakis over a controversial Massachusetts furlough plan that let Horton, a convicted murderer, out of prison on a weekend pass. He escaped and assaulted a couple.

The ad portrayed Dukakis as a soft-on-crime-liberal but it also played to racial stereotypes to feed white fears about black criminals. Bush won handily.

Essential Questions
  • What were most political ads like before the “Daisy Ad”?
  • How did the “Daisy Ad” change how ads were made?
  • How did Nancy Reagan want her husband’s campaign ads to be different from other political ads? How did the “Morning in America” ad raise standards for how ads were produced?
  • What does the “Morning in America” ad reveal about the way Reagan’s campaign wanted Americans to view Reagan’s presidency during the 1984 campaign?
  • What does the Willie Horton ad reveal about attitudes toward crime and race in the 1980s? How did the ad affect crime policy in the decades that followed?
  • How did Mike Dukakis’s debate performance contribute to the damage caused by the Willie Horton ad?
  • Who created and paid for the Willie Horton ad? How did the ad affect the way political campaigns and independent organizations interacted with each other during presidential elections?
Lesson Procedure
  • What was the message of each ad? How is each ad trying to affect the way voters think about the election?
  • How was the message of each ad dramatized visually to convey a powerful subtext? In each ad, what was the most important and powerful image? How did that image help convey the message of the ad?
  • How was the message of the ad supported by casting, editing, creation of new footage, use of archival footage, use of voiceover narration, word choice, and other aspects of video production and film composition?
  • Who was the intended audience for each ad? Based upon the style and content of the ads, what inferences can we make about the groups of voters which would be most affected or influenced by each ad? What assumptions does each ad make about the values, fears or attitudes of the voters it is trying to influence?
  • How has this report re-framed each ad with interviews and editing to reach its intended audience? How has that created a new storyline or theme for each ad, and built the video around that theme or storyline?
  • How does each ad – and, in their own ways, these videos about the ads – seek to break through the “clutter” of the consumer’s mind to gain attention and change consciousness or attitude?
Additional Resources
Morning in America: Political Ads That Changed the Game Retro Report
Daisy: Political Ads That Changed the Game Retro Report
"Morning in America" advertisement The Reagan Foundation
"Daisy" advertisement The Library of Congress
Transcript for "Willie Horton: Political Ads That Changed the Game" Retro Report
Transcript for "Morning in America: Political Ads That Changed the Game" Retro Report
Transcript for "Daisy: Political Ads That Changed the Game" Retro Report

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims.

Skill 5D: Use refutation, concession, or rebuttal in responding to opposing perspectives.

Theme: Civic Participation in a Representative Democracy (PRD)

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