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Strictly Commercial: A Streaming Look at Presidential Campaigns Ads

Most people use television commercials as an opportunity to grab a snack, channel surf, or take a bathroom break. The American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI), however, has found a way to take those ads and turn them in to the main event.

The AMMI has compiled a representative sample of television advertisements for presidential campaigns from Eisenhower vs. Stevenson (1952) to Bush vs. Kerry. Called The Living Room Candidate, the exhibit originally began as a short-term, gallery-based exhibit, consisting of 11 television viewing stations with looped commercials. Now, the museum streams the ads directly to virtual visitors as well.

Why begin with Eisenhower? Quite simply, he was the first president to use television as a medium for getting his campaign messages to the general public. According to The Living Room Candidate, an advertising executive named Rosser Reeves convinced Eisenhower that television would reach a wider audience than any other advertising tool and Eisenhower proceeded to run ads during popular programming like I Love Lucy and to beat Adlai Stevenson by a landslide.

In 2000, the AMMI "looked at assets we already had access to," says Carl Goodman, the Museum's curator of digital media. For a museum devoted to the moving image, streaming was a natural step. The Living Room Candidate launched that year as a concept and a "much reduced experience," according to Goodman, primarily because they simply did not have the finances for a large-scale project. For the 2000 exhibit, he says, "We cobbled it together with Perl scripts and text files--it wasn't a database." This time around, the Museum found the money to do it right and put The Living Room Candidate together for approximately $100,000, including about $10,000 of outside funding.

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