Ace Up Our Sleeve
TELEVISION/RADIO; The Power of the Images Paid for by Politicians
By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: October 15, 2000
IN 1948 Rosser Reeves the advertising executive who would later create the ''melts in your mouth, not in your hands'' commercials for M&M's -- approached the Republican presidential candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, with the idea of advertising on the new medium of television. Dewey flatly turned him down. Television, Dewey said, was undignified.
If Dewey had been willing to dirty himself with television, perhaps he would have been spared the less-than-dignified spectacle of a gleefully victorious Harry S. Truman holding up the headline ''Dewey Defeats Truman.'' The power of televised political advertising has been proved repeatedly over the last half century, to the point that two out of every campaign dollars at all levels, or about $1 billion this year, is spent on TV ads. The growth of this new industry, and art form, is chronicled in ''Madison Avenue Goes to Washington: The History of Presidential Campaign Advertising,'' a film being shown at the Museum of Television and Radio here and in New York through Nov. 12.
That history actually begins in 1952, when the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, shot 40 ads on a single trip to New York, said Tom Hollihan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California.
The ''Eisenhower Answers America'' series -- produced by Rosser Reeves -- included spots such as a voter complaining to Eisenhower about how little $25 had bought at a grocery store. ''It was the candidate addressing the everyman voter with an everyman situation, and it was powerful,'' Mr. Hollihan said.
Eisenhower gained an almost immediate benefit, said David Bushman, curator of the museum's package of screenings. In 1948, each presidential candidate trekked up to 30,000 miles to shake half a million hands; Eisenhower's commercials were sent out to 19 million television sets across the country and sealed his victory, Mr. Bushman said. Eisenhower's Democratic opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson, refused to appear in television advertisements, saying they showed contempt for the American people and proclaiming, ''This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.''
Four years later, Stevenson had changed his mind. Running against Eisenhower again, he produced the first negative ad, accusing the incumbent of breaking promises to promote government ''thrift'' and ''integrity.'' Eisenhower, campaigning on the slogan ''I Like Ike,'' easily won re-election.
By 1960 television had become important enough for the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, to commission the first group whose sole mission was to create political ads. But Nixon's trust in television advertising was not complete; he kept it on the back burner while stumping in all 50 states.
Nixon's uneasiness with television in that campaign went beyond advertising, of course. His poor showing in the televised debates with John F. Kennedy came at a time when 9 out of 10 American homes had a television.
But Nixon's narrow loss in the election may have involved more than just his poor makeup during the debates. In a move little noted at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy cut American television's first Spanish-language ad, appealing to Hispanic voters to support her husband.
Up to this point televised political advertising had followed a traditional hard-sell approach. But in the 1964 presidential campaign more emotional appeals began to appear. President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned a series of advertisements savaging his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. One ad showed a saw cutting through a wooden model of the United States, slicing away the Eastern seaboard as the narrator told of how Goldwater had suggested floating the East Coast out to sea.
Even that paled next to a spot showing a young girl counting the petals of a daisy, the camera pulling in tight on the black of her eye as a male voice begins a count-down that ends with a nuclear bomb blast. ''These are the stakes,'' Johnson says in a voice-over. ''To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.'' The tag line: ''Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.''
BROADCAST just once, the advertisement nevertheless drove news coverage, putting Goldwater on the defensive for the rest of the campaign. This was no accident, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of ''Everything You Think You Know About Politics -- And Why You're Wrong'' (Basic Books).
Ms. Jamieson said that a recently discovered memo showed that Johnson administration strategists had deliberately targeted the advertisement at journalists, effectively pushing the issue Johnson wanted to debate -- was Goldwater likely to blow up the world? -- front and center. This strategy, of targeting advertisements at the news media, has been a staple of campaigns ever since.
Apparently learning from his and Goldwater's gaffes, Nixon stayed away from reporters during the 1968 election and ran an image-laden campaign designed for television consumption. ''The events staged for the campaign become the campaign itself,'' Mr. Bushman said. ''For the first time, the staged event superseded reality.''
That trend peaked in Ronald Reagan's 1984 ''Morning In America'' advertisements, which ignored the country's difficulties, instead resonating with rich images of a bride kissing her grandmother and a boat sailing across a harbor. ''These were feel-good, not substantive ads, indistinguishable from product ads,'' Mr. Hollihan said. More than 30 years after his ''Ivory soap vs. Palmolive'' prediction, Stevenson's fears had become real.
One of the most notorious presidential campaign advertisements appeared in 1988, when supporters of the Republican candidate, George Bush, broadcast a photograph of Willie Horton, a menacing-looking black man who had been imprisoned for murder and rape and then released on a prison furlough program in Massachusetts initiated by Mr. Bush's opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, the state's governor. Playing on racial fears, the ''revolving door'' ad helped make 1988, in the opinion of many, the nadir of political TV advertising.
Largely in reaction, a greater scrutiny of political ads began with the 1992 campaign, as newspapers began to examine their truthfulness and balance. The resulting ''ad watches,'' combined with voters' increased disgust with attack ads, has resulted in cleaner, more issue-oriented ads today, Ms. Jamieson said. When Gov. George W. Bush's campaign released a commercial earlier this year ridiculing Vice President Al Gore and referring to his fund-raising visit to a Buddhist temple, it was criticized by many officials in Mr. Bush's own party.
Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and the narrator of ''Madison Avenue Goes to Washington,'' says that that attitude is even beginning to seep into Congressional races. At least two advertisements -- one in New Jersey and one in Kentucky -- were recently pulled after each attacked candidate showed television stations that the ads were inaccurate. ''This has never happened before,'' Mr. Russert said. ''It's fantastic.''
For all of their impact, televised political advertisements may have reached the limits of their power. As new technologies allow viewers to remotely ''zap'' ads, and as voters are broken down into ever smaller demographic groupings, both the Internet and drive-time radio will grow as small but important parts of the mix, said Roderick Hart, a communications professor and elections expert at the University of Texas.
In the meantime, Ms. Jamieson is just happy that televised advertising has to some extent been cleaned up. ''Before November, we ought to stop ourselves and give a cheer,'' she said. ''The system works.''
Joseph Hanania's most recent article for Arts & Leisure was about the actress and television reporter Andrea Thompson.
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