The 30-second campaign: even in the era of the Internet, TV ads still play an enormous role in presidential elections. Can you trust them?
Can a candidate be sold like a soap, soup, or soft drink? That's the goal of political advertising, which in some ways is similar to, but in others is very different from, its product-peddling counterparts.
Like all advertising, political ads are subjective, presenting a biased point of view. Just as a Ford ad is selling Fords, not other car brands, a political ad is selling a specific candidate. That can sometimes be obscured by the noble trappings in political ads, which are often filled with images of American flags, Mount Rushmore, and the White House.
"Don't expect you're going to get objective voter information" from political ads, says Christopher Malone, a political scientist at Pace University in New York. "That's definitely out of the question."
Regardless of their reliability, more Americans are going to see political ads this fall. In recent presidential elections, candidates have focused their TV commercials on "battleground" states like Ohio and Florida, pretty much ignoring the rest of the country. This year, there are more battleground states than usual--as many as 20. And both candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, are running nationwide ads.
Political advertising has been around since the mid-19th century, but it took the arrival of mass media in the 20th century to elevate its importance. Before there were large daily newspapers, national magazines, or coast-to-coast radio and TV networks, political advertising mostly consisted of buttons, banners, and posters intended to generate turnout at local candidate rallies and at polling places on Election Day.
That began to change when radio's reach became widespread, and the first national campaign commercials aired in 1928 for Republican Herbert Hoover (who won) and Democrat Al Smith. But the truly seismic shift in presidential campaigning canoe when television entered the picture in 1952.
That year, a Madison Avenue advertising executive convinced Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower that the sights and sounds of TV offered the quickest, most effective way to get his message across to voters. Eisenhower was promoted in cartoon-style commercials featuring the upbeat slogan "I Like Ike" (his nickname).
Despite concerns that appearing in commercials would diminish his stature, Eisenhower was also the first presidential candidate to appear in TV ads. The short commercials, titled "Eisenhower Answers America," ran during popular series like I Love Lucy and were a huge hit. (Eisenhower's opponent, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, thought such commercials undignified and ran half-hour speeches on TV instead. In 1956, when he ran against Eisenhower again, he also appeared in TV commercials.)
Tellingly, it was at the dawn of TV campaign ads that their reputation for shading the truth began to develop. While Eisenhower was seen replying to questions from typical voters on issues like the Korean War and the cost of living, it turned out the answers had actually come before the questions. Questioners had been recruited to read the questions from scripts after Eisenhower's "answers" had been filmed, with the order reversed in the editing process.
"Political commercials pretend to be like documentaries, but they use all the techniques of fiction filmmaking, including scripts, performances, and music," says David Schwartz of the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
It did not take politicians long to realize that "going negative" in ads could be extremely effective. In 1964, the campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, ran what is often described as TV's first negative political ad. The so-called "Daisy" spot capitalized on concerns that Johnson's Republican opponent, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons against America's enemies. The ad showed a girl in a field, pulling the petals off a daisy and counting up from one. Then her voice was replaced by an official-sounding male voice, counting down from 10 as a prelude to an atomic blast, which filled the screen with a mushroom cloud as the spot ended. The ad was so controversial that it aired once and was never shown again.
It was, however, successful, and other negative ads followed, especially in the campaigns of 1968 and 1972, when Republican Richard M. Nixon ran for election and re-election. His 1968 campaign used advertising so shrewdly that it became the subject of a popular book, The Selling of the President.
"There is undeniably evidence that a certain kind of political advertising--not just negative, but negative and untruthful--can be effective," says Mike Hughes, president of a Richmond, Va., ad agency. "But I think we have to hold political leaders accountable, telling them 'You are not fit to run the country if you do that.'"
Hughes and others blame the increase in negativity on the fact that most political ads are no longer created by advertising agencies, which, he says, "have to be accurate and truthful" when producing product pitches, but rather by political consultants who specialize in campaign commercials and "don't have to worry about the lawyers." That's because political spots are considered privileged as free speech under the First Amendment, so their content cannot be regulated. By contrast, product ads enjoy less constitutional protection, so false claims can be challenged by the Federal Trade Commission and other regulators.
Negative ads were particularly potent in the 1988 presidential campaign, says David A. Caputo, a political scientist and former president of Pace University. Consultants working for George H.W. Bush, the Republican candidate, produced a variety of aggressive attacks on Michael Dukakis, his Democratic challenger.
Two commercials "were so devastating," Caputo says, that they entered the realm of political lore. One, showing Dukakis looking silly riding around in a tank, portrayed him as weak on defense. The other was intended to paint Dukakis as soft on crime. It showed an ominous photo of Willie Horton, a convict who raped and assaulted a couple while on a prison furlough granted by Dukakis when he was Governor of Massachusetts.
Taking a lesson from the past, observers say, the 2008 presidential campaign has achieved a level of smear and counter-smear sophistication that is unprecedented.
"The speed with which the Obama campaign can respond to allegations has been quite impressive," says Sid Bedingfield, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina.
He adds, "The lesson of the last 20 years is to respond immediately and aggressively, and across a broad front."
This year, there's been a lot of discussion about the impact of the Internet--social networking sites, blogs, and YouTube. Despite all the talk of new media, TV is still where Obama and McCain are spending the most money--about $6 million a week.
THE TIVO CHALLENGE
"Most of the people who are watching ads online are political junkies who've already made up their minds," says Tobe Berkowitz, a communications professor at Boston University. "The reason the candidates still buy a lot of TV ads is that it reaches people who don't pay a lot of attention to the campaign."
But that doesn't mean the Internet and other new technologies aren't changing the rules of the game. One challenge for the 2008 campaigns is how to deal with technology like TiVo that allows viewers to skip the commercials.
"Private-sector companies can do product-placement; candidates can't do that," says Dan Schnur, a professor of political science and communications at the University of Southern California. "You're not going to see Barack Obama fighting terrorists with Jack Bauer. You're not going to see John McCain on So You Think You Can Dance."
These challenges may signal the end of TV's long dominance in campaign advertising. "I think this might be the last big presidential cycle where you see these huge amounts of money spent on television," Berkowitz says. "In another four years, who knows what it will be."
1952 DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER was the first presidential, candidate to advertise on TV.
1960 His movie-star looks helped JOHN F. KENNEDY take full advantage of a visual medium like television.
1964 A girl pulling petals off a daisy was followed by a nuclear blast in the "Daisy" ad for LYNDON B. JOHNSON. It was TV's first negative political ad.
1984 RONALD REAGAN'S "Morning in America" ads captured his optimistic view of America and its future.
1988 The "Willie Horton" ad, on behalf of GEORGE H.W. BUSH, was a "devastating" blow to his opponent, Democrat MICHAEL DUKAKIS.
2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that opposed Democratic candidate JOHN KERRY, ran misleading ads questioning Kerry's heroism during the Vietnam war.
In this year's presidential campaign, both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama have been criticized for stretching the truth in some of their TV commercials. The New York Times runs occasional scorecards on ads from both campaigns, including assessments of how their claims measure up to reality. Here's a critique of two recent ads by Jim Rutenberg, who covers campaign media for The Times.
A spot for Senator Obama that aired this summer in four key swing states said McCain supports a drilling plan that "won't produce a drop of oil for seven years." The ad also said McCain plans to give more tax breaks to big oil companies.
McCain himself has conceded that his plan to lift the ban on offshore drilling would not significantly affect gas prices for years, but he said it would have an immediate, beneficial "psychological impact."
In terms of tax breaks for oil companies, McCain is proposing a broad corporate tax reduction that would include oil companies, but it's not designed solely to benefit them.
A spot for Senator McCain that aired this summer in 11 swing states claimed that Obama opposes drilling for oil in the U.S. and energy independence from foreign oil. The ad also implied that Obama is responsible for the soaring price of gasoline.
Obama is not against all drilling for oil and gas, only drilling offshore, which has been banned since 1782. And increasing domestic oil production is by no means the only or even the main road to long-term energy independence.
It's also hard to see how Obama can be held responsible for the cost of gas. Even before the recent spike, oil prices had been rising for a decade, largely because the economic boom in India and China has swelled global demand.
LESSON PLAN 2
Distribute copies of a print campaign ad for John McCain and one for Barack Obama.
* What do the images and words convey about them? What messages are the campaigns trying to send to voters?
* If possible, show students a TV campaign ad for each candidate [available on their Web sites]. What do the images and words in these ads convey about them? What emotions do they evoke?
How do political ads affect potential voters differently in different media? [Also consider radio, billboard, and Internet advertising.]
Imagine that you are running for President in 2008. Outline your basic stance on key issues in this election, such as the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration, national security, and health care. Then, illustrate and script a storyboard for a 30-second TV commercial to air nationally. What words and images would you use to persuade voters to vote for you (or to reject the other candidates)?
Defend or refute: Although political ads are protected under the First Amendment, they should be held to the same truthfulness standards as product advertisements.
How has the development of media affected the way that candidates influence voters? What are some ways that political candidates could use other media and technologies to campaign?
What, in your opinion, are the most effective ways for a candidate to "sell" himself or herself to voters?
Do you think positive or negative messages are more effective in campaign ads?
John McCain cosponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which regulates the financing of political campaigns. It also requires candidates to state during each ad that they "approved this message."
Presidential campaign ads from 1952 to the present.
(1) Which of the following is not true about both political ads and product ads?
a They aim to sell a product.
b They must legally be accurate and truthful
c They are subjective.
d They present a biased point of view.
(2) How many years ago did the first national political ads appear on television?
(3) Who was the first presidential candidate to appear in TV ads?
a Franklin D. Roosevelt
b Lyndon B. Johnson
c Dwight D. Eisenhower
d Calvin Coolidge
(4) The ad often described as TV's first negative political ad dealt with what topic?
a Nuclear weapons
b Race relations
c Gender equality
d Gun control
(5) Why are Obama and McCain spending so much money on TV ads rather than on ads in new media like the Internet?
a Americans spend more time watching TV than on the Internet.
b It is uncertain whether Internet advertising is effective in political campaigns.
c TV ads cost significantly less than ads placed on Web sites and in e-mails.
d TV reaches people who do not pay a lot of attention to the campaign.
(6) What does the First Amendment have to do with the truthfulness of political ads?
(1) Before the advent of mass media, political ads took the form of buttons, banners, and posters. Do you think these are still effective forms of advertising? Why or why not?
(2) How do you decide which candidate you prefer in an election? What impact do campaign ads have on your decision?
(1) [b] They must be accurate and truthful
(2) [c] 80
(3) [c] Dwight D. Eisenhower
(4) [a] Nuclear weapons
(5) [d] TV reaches people who do not pay a Lot of attention to the campaign.
(6) Political ads are considered privileged as free speech under the First Amendment, so their content cannot be regulated.
Stuart Elliott covers advertising for The New York Times. Additional reporting by Paul Vitello of The Times and Patricia Smith.