An Election-Year Campaign Video That's Kind of Nasty

For some reason I find it interesting that up until the late ’60s, many of the really hardball U.S. campaign advertising tactics now associated with Republicans were more associated with Democrats. (At the national level, at least.) The most famous example is LBJ’s “Daisy” ad, a manipulative, cheerfully unfair commercial designed to tell people that voting for the Republicans will literally destroy the world. Nixon adopted many of these tactics, as did his disciples, while the Democrats moved toward a more touchy-feely type of manipulation (vote for me because I believe in hope, and my opponent hates hope and puppies). In Canada, similarly we frequently hear Conservative ads attacked as being too hard-hitting while Liberal ads are accused of being too soft.

But turn back the clock to 1944, and in a U.S. race between the FDR (running for his fourth freakin’ term) and Thomas Dewey, FDR’s campaign advertising couldn’t be accused of excessive softness. The most famous piece of advertising the campaign produced was the cartoon “Hell-Bent For Election,” which was commissioned from the new independent animation studio, UPA. (It was financed by the United Auto Workers, not officially by the campaign itself, but a lot of famous campaign ads are “third party” ads.) The studio later went on to make the Mr. Magoo cartoons and win acceptance for the use of arty techniques in mainstream animation, but in 1944 they were so understaffed that they mostly relied on moonlighters from other studios: the director, Chuck Jones, did it in his spare time from his regular job with Warner Brothers. Many of the sequences will look familiar to anyone who grew up watching a lot of Chuck Jones cartoons, especially the stylized dream sequence. But as a piece of political advertising, the interesting thing is that it’s really, really hardball: it portrays the Republicans as “defeatists” while the Democrats want to “win the war,” and at one point the conservative businessman morphs into Adolf Hitler. (“War, war! I tell you this is Roosevelt’s war!”) Hitler comparisons, charges of defeatism — in a liberal campaign ad. Nobody’s pure and innocent.

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