Donald Trump’s resounding victory despite an unconventional media strategy may have sowed doubts about the effectiveness of TV ads. But in a cycle known for its volatility and harsh rhetoric, a number of campaign advertisements up and down the ballot left lasting impressions—because they were either moving, zany, or simply unique.
Here, in no ranked order and based solely on what stood out to us among the hundreds of spots we saw, is Hotline’s list of the most memorable ads of 2016:
The spot portrays Republican Gerald Daugherty as an obsessed policy wonk while his wife laments to the camera that he “doesn’t have any hobbies.” The ad shows the Travis County, Texas commissioner performing household chores, eating dinner, and grilling steak as he rattles off statistics and county code information to disinterested listeners. The spot never once mentions his political party, closing with a plea from his wife: “Please reelect Gerald. Please.” He narrowly won reelection.
Set to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's "America,” the commercial spins through images of rural landscapes, happy families, and packed Sanders rallies. The spot, released shortly before the Iowa caucuses, drew praise for its hopeful vision amid a bitter campaign. Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an email later released by WikiLeaks that it made her cry the first time she watched it. After some critics noted it featured mostly white people, the Sanders campaign recut the ad with a more diverse cast, focused this time on scenes of New York.
This spot of Democrat Jason Kander assembling an assault rifle blindfolded was hailed as one of the top campaign ads this cycle. As he speaks, he expertly clicks different parts of the rifle into place, while discussing his support for background checks. The spot further fueled the narrative that Republican Sen. Roy Blunt was a Washington insider, as it played up Kander’s military credentials. The Democrat came within 3 points of unseating Blunt, even as Trump carried Missouri by 19 points.
In his race against Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bacon released playful ads that made light of his last name. The Republican boasts that “everybody loves bacon” in two spots, strolling through a grocery store in one of them as customers stockpile the meat product. Another commercial shows him in a diner where patrons are exclusively eating the food. Bacon wound up ousting Ashford, the cycle’s only Democratic incumbent to lose to a Republican.
The entirely positive spot recounted how Republican Sen. Ron Johnson aided a family’s effort to adopt a child, Grace, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the ad, a mother and father explain how 25 kids in Grace’s circumstance died as they hoped to join their new families. The spot, aimed at women, boosted Johnson’s support from that constituency by 16 points in a Google brand-lift survey. The incumbent went on to win reelection in the most surprising Senate upset of the cycle.
The spot features Trump as the narrator, making insulting and provocative comments about women as adolescent girls evaluate themselves in the mirror. The ad plays some of his most demeaning remarks, including, “I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers,” and, “A person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.” The spot ends with a warning: "Is this the president we want for our daughters?"
This National Republican Congressional Committee ad to boost Republican Rep. Robert Dold was the first and only one from the organization that featured anti-Trump messaging. The spot praised Dold for standing up to Trump, who was highly unpopular in his well-educated and affluent district. The Democratic swing of his seat in a presidential year ultimately proved too difficult for Dold to overcome, triggering a 4-point defeat against his three-time foe, former Rep. Brad Schneider.