The 19 greatest and worst presidential campaign ads of the 2020 election
No one really knows for sure if campaign ads work, but there’s no denying their venerated spot in American politics. From the oft-imitated Ronald Reagan “Morning In America” ad from 1984 to Lyndon B. Johnson’s terrifying “Daisy Girl” ad from 1964 — which involves the suggested nuking of a toddler — presidential ads can run the gamut from inspiring to trollish, from tear-jerkers to grotesquely manipulative.
In 2020, the presidential candidates alone are expected to spend a combined $2.75 billion or more on TV ads by Nov. 3, though most of that will be by Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who has “maintained a nearly 2-to-1 advantage on the airwaves for months,” The New York Times reports. Cash-strapped Trump, notably, has spent the past several weeks retreating from the up-for-grabs states of Ohio, Iowa, and New Hampshire.
But one thing is for sure: this has been a long election season, full of both uplifting messages of hope and good old-fashioned mud-slinging. Here is the good, the bad, and the goofy of the 2020 presidential ads, ranked.
19. “Inspired by Actual Events” for President Trump
I have the alarming suspicion that watching this ad is like watching the video in The Ring, and that something terrible will happen after being exposed to it.
Designed to look like a horror movie trailer, the video was part of a massive Trump campaign blitz on YouTube this summer, and includes deceptively-edited footage of Biden that attempts to promote the president’s narrative that his opponent is in cognitive decline. It’s also … needlessly terrifying? The ad clearly functions as more of a wink to Trump’s core supporters than something that might change anybody’s vote, but has the side effect of giving anyone who stumbles onto it horrible nightmares. Final score: F
18. “Joe Biden is Bernie Sanders’ Trojan Horse” for President Trump
This badly-photoshopped ad references the 2004 Brad Pitt film Troy, a movie that is definitely still relevant and thought about.
Like “Inspired By Actual Events,” this is a troll move, intended to entertain Trump’s base. But “the thing about trolling, and the thing about being kind of successful in it, is you actually have to troll somebody about something that’s a vulnerability,'” explained former White House rapid response director Tanya Somanader in Crooked Media’s “Campaign Experts React to Good and Bad 2020 Ads” series. “This is trying to land the message that somehow Joe Biden is bringing all these leftists with him,” she went on, adding: “People don’t believe this about Joe Biden.” Final score: F
17. “Everybody Let’s Vote” for Joe Biden
Why do I feel like this ad is trying to sell me Old Navy jeans? The music comes from Kosine, the co-producer of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” of all things, but the whole execution here is way too “how do you do, fellow kids?” to successfully pull off making voting for Joe Biden sound “cool.”
One of the most important parts of creating a successful political ad is not setting off your viewers’ bulls–t detectors; that is, to make ads feel authentic and personable. Unfortunately, young voters have some of the best-functioning bulls–t detectors out there when it comes to pandering, and this ad sure triggers the alarm bells. Final score: D-
16. “The Blind Pig” for Joe Biden
This new Biden ad running during football today about saving music venues is absolutely perfect. We MUST save our stages, restaurants, and bars… pic.twitter.com/wHb8bVog5m
— Rex Chapman (@RexChapman) October 18, 2020
Speaking of trying to come across as cool, Biden’s “Blind Pig” ad almost manages it. The ad, which aired nationally on CBS during the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, uses music by the Breeders, the Pixies, and — for the first time ever in a political ad — the Beastie Boys. It also features Joe Malcoun, the co-owner of the historic Blind Pig club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who says Trump’s response to the COVID-19 crisis forced the venue to close its doors. “My only hope for my family and for this business and my community is that Joe Biden wins this election,” he says.
The ad has faced pushback from some conservatives, who point out that it’s the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who is responsible for the continued shutdown of bars, not Trump, who has pushed to reopen the country. That doesn’t invalidate the message in the ad — if Trump had been successful in getting on top of the crisis in the first place, or had more robustly helped small businesses, none of this would be happening — but that doesn’t get finessed out in such a way as to prevent the criticism.
The Biden campaign ultimately pulled the ad from YouTube, with Biden spokesperson Bill Russo telling Variety that Malcoun was “doxxed, harassed, and threatened after the Trump campaign has sought to smear a community leader who dared to speak out against Trump’s failed response to the COVID crisis.” Final score: D-
15. “Meet Joe Biden’s Supporters” for President Trump
Are we watching a political ad, or a trailer for Purge: Election Year?
Somehow the second Trump ad on this list to end with evil laughter, “Meet Joe Biden’s Supporters” attempts to tie Biden — who is not currently president! — to the unrest across the nation over the summer. “Ads that depict chaos and violence that you were too weak to stop is a very strange strategy,” former Barack Obama Communications director Dan Pfeiffer explained to Crooked Media.
The ad notably ends with a shot of Biden kneeling in front of Black leaders during a visit to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware, shortly after the murder of George Floyd. “Asked whether the ad meant to suggest there was something unsafe about Black churches or meeting with Black leaders in a church, Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Samantha Zager replied, ‘That’s absurd and it’s shameful to even make the allegation,'” Religion News Service reported, going on to quote a Twitter user who argued that it sure still seems from this ad “is based on a single idea: Fear Black people.” Final score: D-
14. “Joe Biden Gets Vetted” for Joe Biden
Is pandering to the dads a thing? If so, “Joe Biden Gets Vetted” does the job. The ad features Biden showing off his 1967 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray — get it, to “vette” himself? Yeah, we’re well into dad territory now.
Aside from Biden geeking out over his car, the ad functions to push a surprising environmental message, with Biden explaining, “I believe we can own the 21st-century market again by moving to electric vehicles.” He also mentions (leaks?) that he’s been told that GM is making an all-electric Corvette “that can go 200 mph.” If that’s true, it isn’t public information yet: “I don’t know who ‘they’ are who told him that, but we don’t have any news about any new electric Corvette,” a GM spokeswoman told The Detroit Free Press. Final score: D+
13. “Break In” for President Trump
This ad is technically titled “Break In,” although I prefer the title “Let’s Scare Grandma.” The ad aired in swing-markets like Orlando, Tampa, and Cincinnati during shows like Judge Judy, Jeopardy!, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Bloomberg reports, and belongs to a part of an effort by the Trump campaign to suggest that Biden supposedly supports policies that will make seniors’ 911 calls go unanswered (a similar ad, “911 Call,” even preposterously suggests that the wait time would be “five days.”)
Let’s get a fact-check on that out of the way: “Biden has not proposed anything that could result in 911 calls no longer being answered,” CNN writes. “He has repeatedly and explicitly opposed the idea of ‘defunding the police,’ and he has proposed a $300 million increase in federal funding for community policing.”
Still, honesty and an effective ad are unfortunately not the same thing: A snap poll by YouGov concluded that “the advertisement slightly chipped away at Democrats’ and Independents’ positive opinion of Biden.” Final score: C
12. “What Happened to Joe Biden” for President Trump
Timed to overlap with the Democratic National Convention, “What Happened to Joe Biden” was promoted in “prime internet real estate” on YouTube and Fox News, Axios reports, costing the campaign in the “high seven figures.” The ad attempts to attack Biden’s mental faculties, comparing clips of him from 2015 and 2016 to clips from 2020. Axios goes on to call it “the harshest president campaign attack in what is shaping up to be an even uglier messaging year than 2016.”
The ad, like Trump’s law-and-order campaigns, seems also to almost function like a smokescreen or redirection of criticisms aimed at the president. Over the summer, for example, Trump had to defend himself against rumors that he’d been hospitalized last year for “a series of mini-strokes,” and his decision to brag about the results of his cognitive test drew mockery after Fox News anchor Chris Wallace pointed out that “it’s not the hardest test. It shows a picture and it says, ‘what’s that,’ and it’s an elephant.” Final score: C+
11. “Totally Negligent” for Joe Biden
We turn a corner on 2020 political ads here, with this spot about a Pennsylvania farmer who voted for Trump in 2016 and calls the decision now a “mistake.” The New Yorker describes the tone as “elegiac,” with “more sadness than anger,” and it does indeed seem designed to gently coax other swing-state voters to Biden’s side who might be feeling buyer’s remorse.
The problem with this ad, though, is that it might be too soft. While everyone hates negative attack ads, the reason they’re so prevalent is that they seem to work: “Negative information is more memorable than positive — just think how clearly you remember an insult,” CNN points out. While that doesn’t mean there can’t be powerful positive ads (in fact, we’re about to see several in the Top 10), this ad feels more like it’s designed to give Trump voters permission to vote for Biden, which might not be quite the right approach in such a deeply divisive and emotional election. Final score: B-
10. “Carefully” for President Trump
This video is straight out of a parallel universe that I wish I was living in: by no stretch of the imagination is America “recovering” from the coronavirus right now. Still, it’s a seductive vision of a nation on the up-and-up, and a rare Trump spot touting his (vague) plans for the country’s recovery. The ad also uses footage of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is incredibly popular with the public, saying, “I can’t imagine that … anybody could be doing more.”
To be clear, that’s totally misleading — Fauci blasted the administration afterwards for taking his words “out of context” and said “I have never publicly endorsed nor do I now endorse any political candidates.” But a large part of running for president is selling the nation on a vision, even if that vision has no grounding in any sort of reality. Final score: B-
9. “A Bull in a China Shop” for President Trump
New Trump campaign ad really leans into the president’s, um, unique style: “A bull in a China shop…President Trump’s not always polite. Mr Nice Guy won’t cut it. He does it his way, not the Washington way, but Donald Trump gets it done.” pic.twitter.com/gOE7jepQQI
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) May 28, 2020
Credit where it’s due, this ad is not false advertising! It leans into President Trump’s reputation as a bully, and smartly sells his more abrasive qualities as being an asset for the country — rather than attempting what would surely only be a futile clean-up job of the president’s personality otherwise. Some of the best Trump ads in 2016 did the same thing, boosting the then-candidate’s unconventionality, and this feels very much in the same vein.
The ad also turns Trump into a common noun, which is unintentionally hilarious. Final score: B-
8. “Endorsed: Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger” for Joe Biden
Can you believe there were political ads before the coronavirus pandemic?
This spot was cut in February, prior to Biden becoming the presidential nominee, but at a time when the campaign was already squaring up against Trump — Miracle on the Hudson Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, in his endorsement of Biden, speaks with first-hand knowledge about how “experience” in one’s field can be a matter of “life and death,” in what is a clear dig at Trump’s outsider appeal contrasted with Biden’s long career in Washington.
The ad also followed a viral op-ed by Sully in January, which had slammed Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, for seemingly mocking Biden’s stutter; Sullenberger once stuttered too. “We all face challenges in life,” he echoes in this ad, “but overcoming a significant challenge builds character, builds strength, and that plus empathy is a great combination to have in life.”
Since that’s basically the equivalent of being scolded by Tom Hanks, this ad is definitely effective. Final score: B
7. “Latinos Por Donald Trump” for Donald Trump
I can’t stop watching this ad. It’s strangely … catchy?
It also raises a lot of unanswered questions: Are we supposed to believe that Trump is salsa dancing? Is this song supposed to make us forget all the racist things he’s said about Latinos? Is it actually satire?
Whatever the case, the ad gains points for getting “Latinos por Trump!” stuck on endless loop in my head. Final score: B+
6. “Four Hours” for Joe Biden
Even if you know the bare minimum about Biden, you still probably are aware of his heartbreaking familial losses — and his love of Amtrak. This ad leverages both; as NBC News explains, “Biden and his campaign have long pointed to his sense of empathy following numerous tragic losses in his life as a way for the former vice president connects with voters suffering personal and economic losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Narrated by Westworld actor Jeffrey Wright, the ad succinctly tells a story about Biden’s long commute from Delaware to D.C., concluding that “people in Washington didn’t get why Joe Biden would travel all that way. But in neighborhoods all over this country, there’s no distance parents won’t go for their kids. When Joe Biden traveled those four hours, he wasn’t just going home for his kids, he was going to work for them too, just like he will for yours.” Hey, who’s chopping onions? Final score: A-
5. “President Trump Got It Done” for Donald Trump
Another ad from the Before Times, “President Trump Got It Done” aired during the Super Bowl in February and featured Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old Black woman whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction was commuted by Trump in June 2018 at the urging of Kim Kardashian West. “Thanks to President Trump, people like Alice are getting a second chance,” the on-screen text reads, followed by footage of Johnson saying, “My heart is just bursting with gratitude. I want to thank President Donald John Trump.”
The ad was reportedly an effort by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to boost the president’s numbers with Black voters, who overwhelmingly dislike the president. But while that might have been a bust in the long run, the ad could also have the potentially more meaningful effect “of reassuring white suburban women, a worrisome demographic for the campaign, that the president is not racist,” The New York Times reports.
It appears, anyway, that it worked to some degree: the Times adds that “data indicated that online, the ad featuring Ms. Johnson was the most talked about one of the game, and that most of the chatter around it was positive.” A YouGov snap poll likewise found that 74 percent of people viewed the ad positively, and that it boosted the president’s favorability rating from 9 to 14 percent among Democrats, from 42 to 50 percent among Independents, and from 91 to 94 percent among Republicans. Final score: A
4. “You Can’t Lead Them” for Joe Biden
Now this is a devastating political ad. Coming one day after The Atlantic published a bombshell piece that cited anonymous sources who claimed Trump had called American soldiers “losers” and “suckers” for dying in the First World War, Biden’s ad hits Trump over his long-documented pattern of disrespectful comments and actions pertaining to the military.
What’s especially impressive about this video is that it mostly stands aside to let Trump do the talking. That apparently hit a nerve, too; Trump’s campaign even sent a cease-and-desist letter to Biden’s campaign for allegedly being “False and Misleading” with the content.
“Biden’s focus on Trump’s support for troops comes at a moment when support for the sitting U.S. president among U.S. service members appears to be sharply declining,” Defense One adds. “The latest Military Times poll … shows a steady drop in support for Trump since his election four years ago.” Final score: A+
3. “The Best Is Yet to Come” for President Trump
While the phrase “the best is yet to come” has since been branded in voters’ minds by Kimberly Guilfoyle screaming it at viewers of the Republican National Convention, Trump’s “The Best Is Yet to Come” ad from July showcases his strength when he commits to positive messaging. The ad itself is fairly straightforward, using the president’s Fourth of July speech over stock footage of America, but it tugs on patriotic heartstrings without the doom-and-gloom of Biden’s messaging. “Centuries from now, our legacy will be the cities we built, the champions we forged, the good that we did, and the monuments we created,” Trump proclaims. “America’s destiny is in our sights. America’s heroes are embedded in our hearts. America’s future is in our hands, and ladies and gentlemen, the best is yet to come.”
It feels like an ad from an actual leader, and puts forward a rare (for Trump) unifying and uplifting vision for the country. The ad also resonated with voters, boosting Trump 8 points among Independents, 5 points among Democrats, and 4 points among Republicans, YouGov found. Final score: A+
2. “Go From There” for Joe Biden
It feels almost like cheating to have Sam Elliott be the voice of your political ad. Biden’s final appeal to Americans, “Go From There,” premiered during the first game of the World Series, and uses a voice-over by Elliott as well as a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to deliver the message that “there is so much we can do if we choose to take on problems and not each other, and choose a president who brings out our best. Joe Biden doesn’t need everyone in this country to always agree. Just to agree that we love this country.”
Notably, writes The Week’s Peter Weber, “not mentioned in the ad is the current president of the United States.” The New York Times compared the spot to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 ad “America,” which made voters the happiest of any campaign spot in that election cycle, and called it “emblematic of Mr. Biden’s core closing strategy — projecting an image of decency, reunification and optimism — as President Trump continues to go scorched earth on his political opponents, Republican dissenters, and the media.” (Lest we forget “The Bidening” exists! Shudder).
The Biden campaign is reportedly spending $4 million to promote “Go From There” across four days of the World Series, AdAge reports, which feels like the right move. When you strike gold with Sam Elliott, you don’t walk away. Final score: A+
1. “You’ll Never See Me Again” for Joe Biden
If Trump’s trolling mostly fell flat this election cycle, Joe Biden offered a masterclass with this 10 second ad that uses nothing but Trump’s own words. The ad resonates because it speaks to the fact that the majority of Americans don’t think Trump should tweet, and a mere 27 percent of voters are “proud” he’s their leader. But it’s also really, really funny — and sometimes, that’s all a great ad requires. Final score: A+