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.)