Origins of the Political Ad: Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 Campaign Film

Here’s one from the way-back machine.

“The Oldway and the New” is a 1912 campaign film put out by the Democratic National Committee on behalf of candidate Woodrow Wilson. Housed at the Library of Congress, it is the earliest known example of a political party or candidate using the medium of motion picture to communicate with voters.

“This is an example of how politics has long been evolving along with, and in response to, new media,” Trygve Throntveit, U.S. historian and Wilson scholar at Dartmouth College, told the NewsHour. “This was quite extraordinary to release a film like this and in some ways it just goes to show that we always have constantly adapted our politics to changes in society and culture.”

While this movie was the first of its kind, today television ads are the largest expenditure of presidential campaigns. According to Campaign Media Analysis Group data reported by the Washington Post, $23 million dollars was spent on ads by both campaigns just last week. With Election Day approaching, it is rare to switch on the television or sign in online without encountering ads from President Obama or his GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

This film portrays Republican William Howard Taft as a mouthpiece for special interest groups and Woodrow Wilson as a champion of working class citizens aspiring to the ranks of business owners.

“Here, Wilson is the guy that the average American can trust to handle a problem that has plagued American society for several decades,” Throntveit said.

That problem Throntveit is referring to? The massive concentrations of wealth in the private sector, he said. In 1912, large trusts and corporations were amassing power and exerting their influence over Americans’ private lives. This made financial regulation a major platform issue for the candidate. Likewise, financial regulation remains a topic of political debate to this day.

“The over-the-top comic approach of the film suggests that the success of those who already have wealth will somehow trickle down through better wages for workers is a joke,” Throntveit said.

“The intriguing thing is that this is a political ad and it’s 100 years old and the parties today are telling the exact same story about each other,” said Mike Mashon, head of Moving Images at the Library of Congress. “Democrats are portraying Republicans as the wealthy, the ‘one percent,’ and Democrats are the protectors of the ’99 percent.'”

Don’t miss our slide show showcasing the collection of archival advertisements and political folklore on display at the Library of Congress.