Evolution of presidential TV campaigns.
The Democratic Party's slogan in 1952 was "You never had it so good." It praised the leadership that had led the country through the Depression, World War II and a growing postwar economy.
The Republican Party hired ad man Rosser Reeves to develop a counter slogan for their candidate, Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, he proposed a television campaign, "Eisenhower Answers America." It featured citizens asking Eisenhower questions on issues that the polls said were important, and his answers addressed their concerns.
The ads aired shortly before the election. Eisenhower's overwhelming victory demonstrated the impact television could have on a political campaign.
Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson's campaign response to Eisenhower's television ads was to accuse the Republicans of "selling the presidency like soap." In 1956, when Stevenson ran again, his party had changed its mind and mounted a television campaign. But it was too late. Eisenhower was a popular president, and "I like Ike" was an irresistible campaign slogan.
Then Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John E Kennedy used television ads in 1960, but it was the four televised debates that made the difference in the result, particularly the first one. The image projected a tired and ill Nixon juxtaposed with the handsome Kennedy. Some say Nixon's poor image in that first debate gave Kennedy his razor-thin victory.
In 1964, political advertising became more sophisticated with President Lyndon Johnson's campaign. The Democrats hired a top agency, Doyle, Dane & Bernback, whose campaign had strong emotional appeal, reminding voters of Johnson's work in providing Medicare. It also capitalized on the views of Republican candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater regarding nuclear weapons. Johnson's daisy ad," in which a little girl's counting of flower petals is replaced by a countdown to an atomic bomb blast is considered a classic. The ad was controversial, and the Democrats eventually withdrew it, but Johnson's charisma and his promise of social programs still made him the winner.
In was 1968 when the public got its first inside look at a presidential ad campaign in Joe McGuiness' book "The Selling of the 'President." McGuiness, a newspaper columnist, got total access to the inner workings of Nixon's advertising team. Many were shocked at how carefully Nixon's image was crafted. But it worked, and he defeated Hubert Humphrey and third-party candidate George Wallace.
In 1976, the first presidential election after the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, trust in the government was an issue. Jimmy Carter adopted the role of ordinary citizen, appearing in television ads wearing a work shirt on his Georgia peanut farm. He liked to say, "Everybody from Congress that's running for president is a lawyer." President Gerald Ford had been in Congress for years before serving as Nixon's vice president after Spiro Agnew's resignation. Although not involved in Watergate, Ford's pardon of Nixon had left many voters cold. His "Feeling Good About America" theme failed.
Although Carter played the commoner successfully in 1976, in 1980, he was in the seat of power. His ads portrayed him as dedicated and hard-working, trying to resolve a troubled economy and the American hostage situation in Iran. To voters, the problems seemed too large for Carter, and they chose the more easygoing Ronald Reagan.
Carter's economic problems of 1980 were recalled as Reagan's 1984 television ads asked Americans if they were better off than "just four short years ago.' The famous "Morning in America" campaign used a soft, folksy approach to remind voters of their improved conditions. The ads, a softer version of Ford's "Feeling Good About America" theme, didn't even mention Reagan. The reference to four years before worked because Reagan's challenger, Walter Mondale, had served as Carter's vice president.
Attack ads proved effective in the 1988 presidential campaign as Republican candidate George H.W. Bush challenged Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis on prison furloughs and national defense. One ad showed Dukakis looking uncomfortable riding in a tank. Another showed prisoners going through a revolving door to criticize his granting furloughs to prisoners. The most controversial ad was about Willie Horton who, while on furlough from prison, committed a heinous crime in another state. The ad used a mug shot of a black prisoner that was denounced as appealing to racial prejudices. It was not produced by the Bush campaign; a political action committee paid for the ad, an early example of how outside groups can influence an election.
As a 1992 independent candidate, Ross Perot bought half-hour blocks of network television time to talk to voters about deficit reduction and using technology to increase citizen participation in government. These programs used forthright talk illustrated with simple graphics. Perot got 20 percent of the vote, which, except for President Theodore Roosevelt, was the best third-party record ever. Perot finished third behind Bush and winner Bill Clinton.
President Clinton made use of comparison ads in 1996 to differentiate his agenda from that of Republican candidate Bob Dole. Ads itemized issues like the minimum wage and family medical leave, detailing each candidate's position. The distinction between Clinton and Dole was also reinforced visually, with Dole in black and white. This, along with grainy images of the past, was a way of signaling old and out-of-fashion without saying it.
Two noteworthy changes in the way today's campaigns are conducted are 24-hour cable news networks, which allow candidates more exposure in the form of news coverage, and the Internet, where candidates have their own Web sites to show their positions in more detail than a television ad ever could.
The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, known for its collection related to President Kennedy's assassination, and the Museum in a Care in Astoria, N.Y., opened exhibits of more than 200 presidential ads. The exhibits are called The Living Room Candidate, A History of Presidential Campaign Commercials, 1952-2004 and are available online at http://living roomcandidate.movingimage.us/in dex.pp.
Whatever changes occur in presidential elections of the foreseeable future, one thing is abundantly clear--television will continue to be a dominant force.