In 1964, a blond girl plucked the petals off a daisy. In 1984, morning broke across America, and a menacing grizzly bear lumbered through the woods. Four years later, Willie Horton’s mug shot glowered across everybody’s screens. In 2004, John Kerry windsurfed to the Blue Danube Waltz. These iconic campaign ads—among the precious few that have changed the way people thought about campaigns and candidates over the last half-century—stuck in the American consciousness, more than anything, because they were weird. Each diverged from the typical fare—the candidates talking soulfully into the cameras, the bang-bang-bang attacks with slashing imagery and menacing narrators, and (after Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide) the myriad knockoffs of “Morning in America.”
You’d think it would surprise no one to learn that the commercials that can change people’s political perceptions are the ones that look and sound fresh, the ones you can
watch without thinking, “Geez, another
campaign ad.” The ones that, even if you live in Iowa or South Carolina or New York, you still wouldn’t mind watching.
But Republican campaigns and consultants roundly ignored that lesson—as they always do—during the GOP presidential primary season. Given the huge field of candidates, the fireworks repeatedly set off by Donald Trump, and the ever-mounting desperation of the Republican establishment to derail Trump, you might have expected one of those iconic spots to emerge. Instead, for the hundreds of millions Republicans spent on more than 300 commercials since April 2015—when Ted Cruz launched “Blessing,” the first televised ad of the 2016 cycle, over Easter Weekend in Iowa—not one truly defined a candidate or lastingly changed the course of the race. The vast majority were the same old, same old: vicious attack ads, grainy contrast spots, sunny biographical hymns.
But amid all that blaring sameness, a few ads—and one actor—stood out. And since they are such rare and shining examples, they deserve recognition. Made-up awards, even? So here’s a look back at the stand-out GOP primary ads, what made them special—and what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats might learn from a couple of them about how to go after Trump. (Also, how not to.)
Coolest Visuals: “Mud”
Fred Davis, the Los Angeles consultant who made the ads for New Day for America, the super PAC that backed John Kasich, is known for whimsical, creative spots that defy norms—in ways both good and just plain mystifying. He was behind both the infamous “Demon Sheep” commercial that Carly Fiorina aired during her failed Senate race in 2010 and John McCain’s 2008 “Celeb” ad, which attempted to link Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in Americans’ minds.
And then, in New Hampshire in late January, came “Mud,” an ad that performed a remarkable feat: It helped Kasich get across the “good guy” image that differentiated him from the field; at the same time it was harshly, unforgettably attacking another candidate. It’s hard to look away from, or to forget, the sight of Jeb Bush covered head to toe with thick, slimy black mud, seeming to shrink before your eyes as the narrator says: “Jeb Bush once stood tall, before his campaign sank like a rock and started desperately slinging mud at fellow Republicans.” It worked—for a minute—as Kasich surged to a strong second place in New Hampshire, while Jeb kept shrinking.
Most Repulsively Unforgettable: “Nose”
This ad, also made by Fred Davis for Kasich’s New Day for America PAC, seemed to repulse the entire Twittersphere. “Super gross,” wrote Katie Couric. “Wurst ad this cycle,” Politico quipped. “Nightmare fuel,” The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called it. But if the goal was to make Ted Cruz look more unappealing than he already does, it certainly does the trick. The imagery conjures up all kinds of unpleasant connotations: Pinocchio, snakes crawling around your neck, a noose. Can’t you just feel that nose tightening around your neck?
Best Attack That Didn’t Work: “Parking Lot”
“Parking Lot,” aired in the lead-up to South Carolina’s Republican primary, was the ad that the Republican elite thought—hoped, prayed—would do Donald Trump in. In 2012, when Newt Gingrich’s PAC unleashed the mini-documentary When Mitt Romney Came to Town, featuring regular folks decimated by Bain Capital’s takeovers and layoffs, it slowed Romney’s progress toward the nomination—and ultimately softened him up for the Democrats to successfully paint him in the general election as the worst kind of uncaring rich guy.
With this ad, Ted Cruz aimed to inflict the same blow on Trump. It had everything you could want in an attack ad: sleaze, backroom dealing, corporate cronyism, and a sympathetic, elderly widow, Vera Coking, talking stoically about how Trump tried to force her from her modest home in Atlantic City to make way for a limousine parking lot outside his casino. “Heart?” Coking says. “He doesn’t have no heart, that man.” It’s powerful, but it didn’t work—at least for Cruz’s purposes. After it began to air, the Texas senator’s own numbers tanked in the state, and he ultimately fell to third. This was the moment the establishment may have begun to understand that Trump was not another Romney.
Most Devastating Use of Archival Footage: “Scam”
The media strategists at Our Principles PAC—an outside group founded in January with the sole goal of preventing Trump from getting the nomination—dug up an old infomercial of the real estate mogul selling courses at his now-defunct Trump University for this ad, which aired nationally after Super Tuesday. “At Trump University, we teach success,” Trump smoothly tells viewers in the opening line. “That’s what it’s all about: Success.” The ad then cuts sharply to headlines like “Trump University Was a Massive Scam” (National Review). The contrast is jarring. Trump sounds reassuring and trustworthy in the infomercial, but then the announcer confronts the viewer with evidence—culled from The Washington Post, Reuters, the New York State Attorney General, Forbes, and The Atlantic—that the whole enterprise, now embroiled in lawsuits and fraud allegations, was a scam.
Like “Parking Lot,” “Scam” ultimately failed to halt Trump’s progress toward the Republican nomination. But Trump University—and all that it symbolizes about the mogul—will surely have a second life in the general election. The class-action lawsuit against Trump is slated to go to trial in late November, after Election Day. As lawyers marshal their arguments in the coming months, more defrauded students may speak out publicly, keeping the allegations fresh in people’s minds throughout the general election. And the Clinton campaign will get to ask voters: Do you really want to have a president-elect who has to appear in front of a court to testify about whether he defrauded students?
Best Performance: Anonymous Girl in “Life”
Sure, Marco Rubio looks like he’s wearing a death mask in his “Life” commercial, which his campaign aired in Iowa in January. At the time, the Florida senator was trying to reassure Iowans about his social conservative views on abortion, proclaiming, “I believe one of the fundamental rights given to us by our creator is the right to life.” But then, as Rubio talks about “late-term abortions, where children who are viable outside the womb are still being killed,” a blond toddler appears on screen (subtlety was never Rubio’s strong suit). With Rubio looking like he has food poisoning, she steals the show. That is one cute baby.
Most Cost-Efficient: “Flame”
In this ad, which was created by Rand Paul’s Purple PAC, a flame burns against a black background. “Liberty is warm, powerful, and comforting,” a narrator says. “And like a flame, liberty can be extinguished unless it’s protected.” With the flame still burning in the foreground, large pictures of Rand Paul start appearing on screen, like a giant Mao Zedong. His face is in constant danger of being incinerated.
We knew Paul and his allies were strapped for cash, but this ad, which aired in Iowa in January, is hilariously bad. But it does carry some good tips for the general election (attention Gary Johnson and Jill Stein): If you want to keep that advertising budget down, all you need is a blowtorch and some old photos.
Most Heavily Bleeped: “Best Words”
“I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words,” Donald Trump says in this ad from The American Future Fund, a dark- money group alleged, by Trump and others, to be in cahoots with the Rubio campaign. Then, for a full two minutes, Trump spews such profanities as broadcast networks allow: “Listen you motherf[beep]. He gets the nomination, they’re going to sue his a[beep]. She said he’s a p[beep]. I don’t give a [beep]. We’ll beat the [beep] out of them.”
The camera pans out slowly until the viewer sees that the screen has been set up in the White House briefing room, subtly suggesting that maybe we should not put someone there who swears like a sailor on national television. But is this really a smart way to undermine Trump? Everyone knows he has a foul mouth. It’s part of what makes him, you know, a “straight talker.” Surely Clinton’s people can do better.
Most Useful in the Rust Belt: “Outsourcer”
For this ad, the anti-Trump folks at Our Principles PAC dug up a gem of an old interview on David Letterman’s show. “These are beautiful ties,” Letterman says to him, pulling out several Donald J. Trump collection ties. “They are great ties. The ties are made in where? China? The ties are made in China.”
“Now, where are these made?” Letterman continues, pointing to a shirt from the Trump collection.
Trump replies: “I don’t know where they were made, but they were made someplace.”
Letterman: “Where are the shirts made? Bangladesh.”
The fact that Trump outsourced jobs to China and Bangladesh was subsumed, to some extent, in all the commotion that ensued over the last several months, as #NeverTrump groups started throwing all the attacks they could think of at the proverbial wall to see what might stick. But Clinton is going to need to find some way to dent Trump in the key Rust Belt states this fall, and this ad offers a broad hint: If she homes in on his record as an outsourcer, it could turn off the white Rust Belt voters he’s counting on.