How Campaign Ads Can Tell A Zombie Story, And So Can You

BY Joshua Barajas  October 31, 2012 at 2:38 PM EST

Photo Illustration using Getty Images

Before ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ established the zombie film genre, campaign attack ads were using some of the same horror devices. Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 attack ad began with a little girl and ended with a mushroom cloud. That blast changed how candidates would sell themselves — and their opponents — to the American voters.

Johnson’s ads were among some of the “first in a political era in which presidential candidates increasingly and effectively used emotion, not reason, to win elections,” LSU mass communications professor Robert Mann said on his blog.

Now try your hand at making a zombie political ad. Ad Libs is our interactive tool that helps you create your own political ad, using content available from your Facebook page. PBS NewsHour partnered with Mozilla and launched Ad Libs earlier this month to allow viewers to explore the overwhelming theme about political ads — that they are templates, predictable in tone and structure.

While the frequency of these messages has increased, the themes from both sides remain the same: promises were broken, politicians are too extreme, and narrators warn voters about the peril ahead if they pick a particular candidate.

Zombies Eat the Campaign

OK, so a zombie-themed political ad may seem far-fetched and absurd, but horror movie tropes are still used frequently.

In an effort to outshine Mitt Romney during the Republican primary, Rick Santorum’s campaign created “Obamaville” — a cautionary tale in which President Obama is re-elected with disastrous results. The ad featured images straight out of a horror film: desolate streets, a masked surgeon, a man holding a gas pump to his head, crows and so on. More strikingly, an image of Obama briefly flashed over the face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The same scary visuals can be found in House and Senate ads as well. Earlier this month, California Republican John Dennis and his campaign released “Night of the Living Pelosi,” an attack ad that features House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi conducting a sacrificial lamb slaughter amid a group of zombies.

Of course candidates have long used alarming imagery in their attack ads. Infamously, Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy Girl” ad ended in a mushroom cloud. Before that image appears, a little girl plucks the petals off a flower before a booming countdown to the blast begins. Nowhere is Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, mentioned or seen in the ad, but it was taken to mean that Goldwater would start a nuclear war.

“Daisy Girl” was successful because it tapped into the public fear of the time. As LSU mass communications professor Robert Mann said in his blog, “Goldwater’s many reckless statements about nuclear war had indelibly branded him a dangerous extremist,” he said. “[The ad's creators] merely employed the images of Goldwater already in voters’ minds to evoke fear of a nuclear holocaust.”

President Obama and Mitt Romney have yet to use zombies to galvanize their supporters, but according to a Wesleyan Media Project report released last week, fear remains one of the top emotional appeals in their televised campaign ads, behind anger. With enthusiasm and pride registering not as high these days in campaign ads, why not have some fun and launch a campaign against a candidate who would allow a zombie apocalypse!