When candidates get desperate, they try to scare you. A collection of some of the greatest dystopian campaign ads of the last 50 years.
Screengrab from Youtube.
Obamaville is a place where all the women are terrified, all the men are oppressed, and all the gas prices are above average. It’s the setting of the most popular Rick Santorum commercial of all time; half a million YouTube clicks for a video set in a dark, dramatically edited 2014. Santorum isn’t the first candidate to try to scare Americans into voting for him. There’s a history here, a rich tradition of ads from candidates who predict doom if they don’t win. These candidates, being desperate, usually lose. America endures. But the ads keep coming anyway.
This is a collection of some of the greatest hits from campaigns that had nothing else to lose.
2012: If Obama Rules
We see sad children in gingham dresses, a man pointing a gas spout at his head, and stacks of TVs that flash between images of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Barack Obama. Santorum has made a movie out of what Mitt Romney’s only been implying: Elect Obama, and the world as we know it ends. It’s an unusually good year for this message—high unemployment, 13-digit debt, two wars. Apocalypse Rating: 5 out of 10. America looks like District 12, and that leaves us with all kinds of bad associations.
2006: The Taxman
Before they lost Congress, Republicans hired Airplane/Naked Gun director David Zucker to design a dystopia of tax hikes. “What if you woke up a year from today,” asked a narrator, “the Democrats had taken over, and you were able to see their new taxes?” An unsmiling federal agent haunts ordinary Americans as they watch baseball, eat at restaurants, and give birth. It’s all a little like The Adjustment Bureau, without the happy ending. (Spoiler alert.) “If the Democrats take over Congress,” we’re told, “they will raise taxes over $2.4 trillion to keep up with their reckless spending.” And that’ll be the end of freedom. Apocalypse Rating: 1. Suburban America actually looks to be in great shape in these ads. And the Democrats never raised those taxes.
2000: How Do You Say, “I’m Choking” in Spanish?
Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential bid was arguably the most disastrous episode in a pretty successful career. He’d run for the Republican nomination twice, and won a couple of states, but in 2000 he bolted and ran for the Reform Party nomination. Whoever got their nod could, theoretically, run a serious, well-funded campaign, aided by federal matching funds. And then Buchanan wasted most of his time wresting the nomination away from the candidate of the Transcendental Meditation-focused Natural Law Party. Once he won, he bought this: an ad in which a frustrated white man learns that English is no longer the national language, then chokes to death because 911 doesn’t have an English-speaking operator available. Apocalypse Rating: 3. As stupid as the ad was, there’s still a constituency that fears this.
1984: The Day After
Walter Mondale struggled, and failed, to turn President Ronald Reagan into the sort of character who could terrify voters. What were they scared of in the early 1980s? Nuclear war, obviously. In 1983, 100 million people tuned in for The Day After and watched Jason Robards and Steve Gutenberg crawl through the aftermath of WWIII. Mondale’s credibility on the issue was iffy—the Carter-Mondale administration had negotiated SALT II, then rejected it—but that didn’t stop him. This long ad showed adorable children frolicking to the sounds of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, until nuclear missiles start launching, and they get distracted by impending doom. Apocalypse Rating: 4. It’s creepy enough until Mondale shows up and starts talking.
1968: Hubert Humphrey Will Destroy the World
Roger Ailes, the future founder of Fox News, honed his craft on the Nixon campaign. His commercials tried to capture the angst and nausea that Americans felt about the late 1960s. They mostly succeeded. In “Decision,” Ailes moved on from hippy-bashing to show what the world would be like if yet another bumbling Democrat won the presidency. It’s a collection of images: Nuclear missiles. Brezhnev. Mao. Castro. The Red Army. We cut to pictures of an undetermined war, then pictures of soldiers crying out in agony. We end on one of the all-time most apocalyptic campaign slogans: “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.” Apocalypse Rating: 6. This is legitimately disturbing.
1968: No, Richard Nixon Will Destroy the World!
Nixon’s ad showed; his Democratic rival’s ad told. A narrator asked viewers: “Do you want Castro to have the bomb? Now?” Right then, a nuclear bomb exploded, scattering clouds, as the viewer learned that Nixon was in “no hurry” to sign—of all things—a United Nations treaty. The scariest part of the ad was the slogan: “Humphrey, there is no alternative.” Apocalypse Rating: 3, because we’re just talking about a treaty.
This is the problem. Everyone who runs a political campaign knows the “Daisy” ad. They know it ran only once, but it was so viral (there was probably another word for this in 1964) that it kneecapped Barry Goldwater. It’s like “Yesterday,” or Game 6 of the Jazz-Bulls finals in 1998. You know it worked, but how do you repeat it? It most situations, you can’t. You need a widespread sense that a candidate is crazy and an incipient sense that America could be doomed. Apocalypse Rating: 10. Johnson’s “these are the stakes” bellow really ties the bow around it.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.