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Friday A/V Club: What Political Advertising Looked Like 75 Years Ago

Look out, world! Here comes Willkie!


From 1940, here's a film made by the Republican Party to promote its presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie:

The whole thing is more than 15 minutes long, and its sheer slowness stands in stark contrast to the TV and Web ads of today. Two minutes pass before it obliquely raises an actual campaign issue—the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented third term—and the admen evidently thought the best way to introduce the argument was a lengthy reenactment of George Washington's speech refusing to run for reelection in 1796. If this had aired in the TV era, it's easy to imagine millions of Americans changing the channel.

Things get livelier at 3:12, when we see footage from the Republican convention and hear narration declaring that the delegates were "free men and women," not "men under the lash of corrupt city machines." Finally, nearly six minutes in, someone says the candidate's name.

The pace isn't the only part of the picture that will seem odd to modern audiences. (When's the last time a Republican presidential nominee assured you that although he is a businessman, "I was a liberal before many of those [Democrats] heard the word"?) But for all that's alien about the film, a lot of it feels familiar, from the campaign biography that stresses the candidate's allegedly humble beginnings to the shots of the politician awkwardly visiting reg'lar folks at work.

If you watch just one segment of the movie, check out Willkie's direct address to the voters. It begins at the 9:33 mark, and it mostly consists of a long list of economic interventions that he supports, followed by a promise to carry them out more cheaply than the Democrats would. The sheer explicitness of this may be the most alien portion of the picture. But the underlying idea—I can give you what they say they'll give you, but with me it'll cost less—feels very familiar indeed.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. I’m too busy to watch, but does it say who paid for the ad at the end?

  2. One issue that Wilkie’s speech raises is this idea that somehow it is only in the recent past did the Republican party move away from smaller government or less governmental intervention in the economy.

    Of course in the 19th century it was the more interventionist party of the two (obviously telling Libertarians what they already know)

    By the late 30’s the Rooseveltian mixed economy was accepted by most GOP politicians and power machers and would remain a dominant ideal until the 70’s

    1. That or the looters realized that to keep their hand in the till the platform had to change. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall explains machine politics way better than appeals to evolving ideals. The LP has been successful so far in getting a lot of bad laws changed by exploiting this principle to defeat both the Methodist White Terror and the Socialist Red Terror in their efforts to abolish individual rights.

  3. “The whole thing is more than 15 minutes long, and its sheer slowness stands in stark contrast to the TV and Web ads of today.”

    And Willkie did as well as could be expected from such a long, boring format. I mean, he lost and his opponent got an unprecedented third term.

    Sorry, you need better evidence than this to show that the attention-span of the American people has improved.

    1. Ooh, something shiny!

  4. I have a Wilkie/McNary button on my hat. No one, noBody has a clue who they were. Tweek!!!

  5. All the Dems had to reply was: “Remember Prohibition and the Crash?” The Dems (Wilson and Bryan) had endorsed the Income tax to “replace” liquor excise and tariffs, and enacted wartime national prohibition even before the night of January sixteenth. But Soviet Russia opted for repeal in 1925, just as the Dems realized the US was awash in German Heroin? because beer was no longer an option. Every election the churches and Prohibition Party pressured the GOP to again ban liquor, thereby guaranteeing FDR, who signed Repeal, a third term. The appeal to George Washington backfired. Washington had ordered American troops to fire on Americans as needed to crush opposition to the return of the Whiskey Excise. The average voter’s main worry in 1940 was that Hoover got more votes when he lost to FDR than Whiskey Al Smith got when he lost to Hoover in 1928. “Liberal” meanwhile shifted meaning from “wet” to socialist.

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