Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
The fusion of political campaigns and popular culture is not a phenomenon that has emerged in the United States only recently. Even by the turn of the twentieth century, this convergence was already becoming established. Building throughout the nineteenth century, during any presidential campaign season, in towns and cities across the country, swarms of citizens would line walkways and cheer as they viewed the spectacle of bands, dignitaries, flags, colorful banners, badges, and smiling faces streaming by. Modern advertising, which emerged and began to assume its pervasive presence in the cultural landscape during the second half of the nineteenth century, had its political forms as well.
The idea that advertising functions as an element of popular culture, however, is a contestable issue. Many critics would argue that advertising actually interrupts the modes of entertainment (television shows, for instance) that people seek out. Yet other scholars would answer that, in the United States, because advertising represents such a dominant part of the symbolic landscape and not only operates as the chief means of support for most forms of mass media but also has a profound influence on the very content the media deliver, it is impossible to separate advertising from the rest of popular culture: the two communication systems are intertwined. This tendency is in effect with political advertising just as it is with general consumer advertising; despite the myriad protests heard during any campaign season in relationship to the plethora of campaign ads and commercials that pepper the mass media, numerous people still discuss them in their day-to-day conversations. Today, various Internet enthusiasts who are especially politically engaged even create their own independent political commercials and post them on video Web sites such as YouTube; some of these low-budget creations achieve popular status and circulate widely as other Internet users forward them to acquaintances, friends, and family members.
The Role of Advertising in the Political Campaign
Political advertising refers to placing political messages in purchased media space for the purpose of persuading a mass audience on behalf of a candidate, issue, or cause. Yet advertising is but one component of a comprehensive political campaign. During a typical presidential election season, for example, the candidates, their campaign staffs, and scores of volunteers will participate in planning and executing innumerable duties, including the following activities:
• Speeches. The politician running for office will implement an elaborate schedule of speeches, delivered at campaign rallies and other organized events in towns and cities throughout the country. Although it will frequently be reviewed by the candidate before it is presented, a speech will generally have been written by one or more persons belonging to his or her team of speechwriters. Given the sheer number of talks that will be performed during any campaign, the candidate will often rely on a “stock speech” or “stump speech,” which is a standardized speech suitable for many occasions. At each stop, if necessary, minor adjustments can be made to the stump speech to tailor it to each audience. At the same time, a large pool of well-trained “surrogates” will also travel and make speeches on behalf of the candidate. These stand-ins could include other politicians, family members, respectable friends, or celebrities. Frequently, campaign speeches, depending on the location and setting, receive local or national news coverage, which provides additional promotion for the candidate. Such exposure is generally the result of coordinated efforts between journalists and some of the candidate’s campaign operatives.
• Public relations activities. Developing, carrying out, and monitoring a public relations (PR) plan is an enormous part of a political campaign and encompasses so many practices that it is difficult to spell them all out. Some of the most important and common PR responsibilities fall under the categories of media management, the attempt to control, manipulate, or influence media coverage so that it advances rather than undermines the goals of the campaign; image management, the process of crafting and maintaining a consistent and electable persona for the candidate by attending to details of appearance, presentation, and style; and political marketing, which comprises the dozens of promotional activities that do not belong to the category of advertising per se. Examples of media management include sending out press releases with newsworthy information that is favorable to a candidate, orchestrating press conferences when a politician has something important to announce and desires the attendance of journalists and other key observers, and arranging appearances on various media venues, such as Web sites, news shows, talk shows, or even more overt entertainment productions. Choosing the right clothes and hair style for a television encounter, coaching a candidate on diction and speech patterns, and helping a politician eliminate awkward gestures are all instances of image management. Political marketing could entail anything from a publicity stunt at a state fair to a town hall meeting conducted by a candidate’s avatar in the virtual computer world of “Second Life.”
Perhaps the main characteristic that defines PR apart from advertising is that it is often “free” publicity earned through third-party mediation. For example, campaigns do not have to pay news organizations for any coverage they receive. On the other hand, print space in newspapers and air time on television for advertising is always bought. Consequently, PR messages are frequently perceived as more “credible.” Whereas advertising is easily recognized as a form of purchased propaganda, reporting through the press or newscasts is usually perceived as originating from the work of journalists rather than a politician’s campaign staff.
• Party conventions. Although conventions are the sites at which candidates are officially nominated, over the years they have evolved from contentious affairs to major PR events. In the past, conventions were filled with argumentation and dissention as politicians hashed out who would eventually gain the parties’ nominations. Today, choosing who will run for the presidency at a convention is usually a mere formality; the gatherings are heavily orchestrated in such a manner as to convey party unity and themes that are conducive to winning the election. More often than not, the central messages that emerge from a convention become the platforms that are emphasized throughout the rest of the campaign. Many of these themes are revisited and reinforced in the political advertising that follows, so the conventions still play a vital role in the election process and serve as a springboard for forming and implementing an advertising strategy (also see Political Conventions).
• Political debates. Televised presidential debates were not always staged in previous decades, but now they have evolved into a standard element of any election season. Not only do the major party nominees debate, but intraparty debates also normally occur during the primary periods. Each occasion stands as an important opportunity to make positive impressions on the electorate, while avoiding any mishaps. Because a widely watched debate, which inevitably receives substantial news discussion afterward, can sometimes become a key contributing factor in winning or losing an election, a candidate’s campaign team is thoroughly involved in prepping the politician for the event, generally coaching him or her in advance on what questions to expect and how they should be answered.
In spite of the daunting array of practices that are put in motion for a political campaign, advertising yet represents one of the most important aspects of the total initiative. Indeed, political advertising has evolved into such a force that, currently, its cost is typically the largest line item in a campaign budget during any major party run for president. Buying many units of time on television, in particular, is exceptionally expensive. Political advertising is commonly regarded as the main means through which presidential candidates directly convey their messages to the populace. What is more, the sophisticated development of political advertising unfolded mainly in the United States and more money is spent on it in the United States than in any other country. Furthermore, because it is associated with propaganda, advertising is probably the most controversial component of a political campaign. For these and other reasons, political scholars and critics have taken an increasingly keen interest in the role of political advertising in the democratic process.
The Producers behind Political Advertising
There are many organizations (and even individuals) that contribute to the creation of advertising during any national campaign season. For a presidential election, for example, each candidate will hire or form his or her own agency or team to plan and execute an advertising campaign. In addition, the parties (the Republican and Democratic ones being the biggest) to which the candidates belong will generally create their own advertising in support of their nominees. Beyond these obvious sources, however, are many independent groups that also mount campaigns to either indirectly advocate on behalf of a candidate or work toward his or her defeat (by law, they cannot directly mention the candidate). Political pressure groups have existed throughout the history of the United States. But their formal function in election politics has intensified over the past few decades, to the extent that they sometimes have more influence over audience perceptions on certain topics than the political parties themselves. A ruling in 1976 facilitated the sharp rise of the political action committee (PAC), which is a group devoted to a single issue, encompassing anything from the environment to abortion. After that, for years, although donations to specific candidates were restricted, PACs were allowed to contribute unlimited funds (termed “soft money”) to the national parties, which could then funnel the resources into advertising or other activities. Moreover, many PACs constructed their own political advertising campaigns. Yet in 2002, Congress passed legislation that barred the parties from raising or spending soft money (“hard money” donations, i.e., those going straight to the candidates themselves, remained legal, with their limits even being increased). A largely unintended result of the ban on soft money was the dramatic proliferation of so-called 527 groups, named after the federal tax code that grants them tax-free status if their work is devoted to political causes that are not coordinated with the parties or their candidates. In essence, during the 2004 presidential election, the first one to transpire under the new financing law, much of the soft money that would have been directed to the parties was simply channeled into 527s.
Thus, during any federal campaign season, there are many sources behind the political advertising in support of each candidate. Yet to members of the audience, the ads and commercials are likely to appear as if they are coming from one point of origin for each major candidate. Although it is a legal requirement that the organization funding each advertisement be identified, usually such reference is underplayed and, consequently, viewers are not always able to distinguish the group behind what they see or hear.
The Evolution of Political Campaign Advertising in the United States
A comprehensive history of political advertising would encompass national, state, and local campaigns, as well as survey the myriad forms of advertising that have appeared over the years and the various media through which they have been delivered. Yet national, presidential general elections typically generate the most interest among the electorate and, with their vast financial resources, exploit the domain of popular culture more than any other political campaigns. In addition, television has received the greatest amount of attention from observers because it was with this medium that political advertising became a principal component of campaigning and topic of controversy. Discussions and debates about political advertising generally center on its televisual forms (although, as the use of the Internet continues to expand, this is changing) far more than its radio, print, and other media manifestations.
Early Forms of Presidential Campaign Advertising
Throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, political advertising per se was not one of the core tools in the campaign war chest. The only form of mass media in existence was print, which included books, magazines, and newspapers. Politicians and their backers indeed used the press to reach audiences, but much more through partisan news coverage and opinion pieces than directly produced and placed ads. During any election season, people were exposed to posters, parade banners, and pamphlets. Yet these were usually not distributed nationally, nor were mass audiences exposed to them simultaneously. Thus citizens’ engagement with these local advertising vehicles was more interpersonal in nature than it would be with the media to come.
Still, campaign advertising, including partisan handbills, broadsides, and posters designed to appeal to the emotions and imagination, was a staple publicity tactic by the dawn of the twentieth century. Precursors to other modern advertising formats had surfaced in the nineteenth century as well. For example, popular songs that foreshadowed the advertising jingle were starting to be perceived as particularly effective ways of mobilizing public opinion. During Grover Cleveland’s second presidential race, for instance, supporters of his opponent charged that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child and serenaded campaign appearances with shouts of, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, haw, haw, haw!” Sloganeering, an advertising device commonly employed to reduce an idea to its bare-bones essence in a way that drums up sentiment among large numbers of people, was also coming into play. As a case in point, throughout the campaign of 1840, William Harrison was enshrined in the alliterative phrase, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The expression was intended to remind citizens of Harrison’s role in a battle against the Shawnee Indians at Tippecanoe in 1811, an event of questionable merit that resulted in the massacre of Indians yet weakened their strength. The reference, cleaned up for the purpose of mythologizing the candidate, was even encoded in song. Supplemented with parades and symbols that signified Harrison was a man of the people (though he was solidly a member of the well-to-do), such as the display of log cabins, the distribution of hard cider, and the donning of coonskin caps, the cheer of “Hurrah for Tippecanoe” could be heard loud and clear at campaign gatherings. Yet advertising’s potential as a central instrument of promotion during election seasons awaited the rise of the nation’s first broadcast medium.
Radio Campaigns and the Mass Audience
Although radio was introduced at the turn of the twentieth century, it originally operated as a point-to-point form of communication. It was not until the 1920s that it developed into a mass medium. Much of the impetus behind the creation of a radio broadcasting system was the desire of corporations connected to the industry to simply sell radios. Advertising as a primary revenue stream did not occur until after 1922, when AT&T experimented with a type of transmission that was dubbed “toll broadcasting.” Like the management of its pay telephone service, the company offered any person who or business that wished to convey a message via the airwaves to enter its studio for a fee. A real estate agency in Long Island, New York, is generally identified as the first company to demonstrate the potential of advertising to fruitfully reach people listening to radio within the comfort of their own homes. After hearing the Queensboro Corporation’s sales pitches for its apartments away from the congestion of Manhattan, many people responded and became potential or actual customers. Stimulated by this success story, scores of businesses took to the ether with their own selling messages. Once the business world recognized radio’s considerable capacity as a promotional vehicle, it was only a matter of time before commercial sponsorship would become the dominant model of broadcasting in the United States.
Politicians, too, took to the airwaves in the 1920s. In terms of direct campaign tactics, radio eventually supplanted parades and brass bands in importance. Moreover, it offered an expanding array of opportunities for reaching the populace at the level of popular culture. Yet candidates at first relied far more on broadcast speeches and coverage of political conventions than explicit advertising itself. In 1928, a rudimentary kind of political advertising finally found a place on the radio dial. The Republican Party hired thousands of “Minute Men” to present brief radio talks in support of its candidates. Operatives wrote scripts, which were sent in advance to readers across the country so that the same message could be heard nationwide on the same day. Meanwhile, New York Governor Al Smith’s failed run for the presidency featured a radio play portraying his life story, as well as five-minute radio speeches, which, due to their brief length and paid placement, could be considered an early sort of political broadcast advertising. In addition, the Democrats created 30-minute shows that fused political speeches with entertainment, such as music and celebrity appearances.
Indeed, as political candidates’ understanding of radio matured, as a means of indirect promotion, they continued to learn ways of inserting campaign messages into programming that had the appearance of mere entertainment. In 1944, for instance, on the Roosevelt Special, a number of big-name celebrities, including Tallulah Bankhead, Irving Berlin, and Lucille Ball, provided brief endorsements for the candidate whose name supplied the show with its title. As most radio historians agree, Roosevelt became the president who best demonstrated the efficacy of radio for establishing a bond with the public. Four years later, during Harry Truman’s run for president, the Democratic Party placed campaign themes into a series of humorous programs it produced and targeted toward women at home during the day.
Political Advertising through Newsreels
At about the same time as radio was evolving as a popular mass medium, the interplay of politics and popular culture in the service of campaigns found another new expression through newsreels. These short films were screened by movie patrons before the featured selections. Mostly a forerunner to the contemporary television news show (in fact, the introduction of television quickly led to the news-reel’s extinction), the newsreel was also exploited by political candidates for self-promotion, somewhat prefiguring political television advertising. For example, Hollywood was called into service to help defeat Upton Sinclair, a socialist running for governor of California in 1934. Actors were hired to play the roles of everyday citizens who conveyed anxiety regarding the prospect of a newly elected Sinclair. The following year, Huey Long, the senator of Louisiana, unwittingly undermined his own campaign by participating in a newsreel produced by The March of Time. Little did he realize that the makers of the short film were partial to Long’s competitor; presaging television attack commercials, the newsreel was edited in such a manner as to make him appear ridiculous.
The Role and Advantages of Radio in the Political Advertising Mix
Yet once television took the U.S. population by storm following World War II, it replaced both newsreels and radio as the most potent mode of political advertising. Radio advertising for candidates and political issues, though, did not simply vanish and, in fact, is still in use today. The medium offers several advantages. First, radio advertising is much cheaper to produce and air than its television counterpart, which is especially important for candidates with small budgets such as city and state office seekers. Second, it can reach potential supporters during their drive-time commutes. Third, although television increasingly supplies opportunities for targeting niche audiences, radio can sometimes be even more efficient in appealing to particular groups of voters due to its specialized formats. In general, radio continues to be a part of a comprehensive political campaign.
Television and the Rising Importance of Political Advertising
Observers often point to the advent of television as a pivotal period for political advertising. Election campaigns themselves, encompassing many promotional activities—some of which could even be entertaining to a certain extent—and exploiting every available communication medium, had been waged since the forming of the nation. Yet historically, advertising per se was but one supplementary element within a comprehensive run for office, and broadcast commercials in particular had only been in existence since radio’s mass introduction in the 1920s. Once U.S. audiences eagerly embraced the new medium of television, advertising evolved into one of the most central features of a campaign, especially those for federal elections. Candidates continued to incorporate other forms of advertising, including radio commercials and print ads, into their campaigns. But television advertising has garnered the most attention for at least the past 50 years. Some critics argue that political advertising, with its dependence on innovative technologies and large coffers, has turned campaigns into a type of entertaining spectator sport that contributes to audience passivity and leads to less participation at the voting booth. Others would contend that not only is political advertising a reality of today’s sophisticated campaigns and not going away, but that it also represents an important form of free speech and an efficient vehicle for communicating with the populace.
Early Resistance to Political Advertising on Television. Although television technology had been on hand decades earlier, the new visual medium was not fully marketed to the public until after World War II; the industry and its key patrons held that the disheartening conflict and its surrounding tensions did not provide a suitable climate for the launch of a major media invention. The first presidential campaign to include television advertising, then, did not occur until after the troops had returned and the nation was ready to settle into a more routine way of life, albeit, one that enjoyed an expanding emphasis on a consumer economy. In 1948, Rosser Reeves, a top executive of the Ted Bates advertising agency and an influential figure in the field at large, turned to Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York and the Republican candidate for president, and discussed with him the possibility of running spots as part of Dewey’s campaign. Reeves had seen that television commercials could persuasively sell everyday products and services and assumed that they could also be employed to promote politicians. Dewey declined, however, feeling that such a display would be perceived as improper. Bruce Barton, of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), was also interested in assisting Dewey. But the politician only followed Barton’s lead following his presidential defeat and during his run for reelection as governor. Instead of producing and placing commercials, though, the campaign staged an 18-hour television event in which voters around the state asked questions on camera and Dewey offered replies from a studio. With the help of this effort, Dewey retained his governorship. Yet the extent to which his victory was a result of the broadcast is uncertain, as many other factors are at work in any political campaign.
The Advent of the Political Media Consultant
Initially, even as advertising became a greater force during election seasons, media consultants played relatively minor roles and did not function as topmost campaign planners. Not until 1964 did the ad team begin to assume fairly equal status with other major tacticians in a campaign. Sometimes completely separate agencies have been temporarily formed in support of a presidential candidate. Today, a media advisor for a national campaign is generally a powerful figure in charge of the advertising strategy and often, for its overall communication strategy as well. Political media consulting has grown into a full-fledged profession.
Presidential Campaign Advertising in the Age of Television
The earliest significant use of television advertising for a presidential election was for the campaign of 1952 between Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, and Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Since then, television has represented the most dominant medium in a presidential advertising campaign, although its supremacy could eventually be undermined as politicians increasingly turn to the Internet and other interactive forms of communication to promote their candidacies. Regardless of how the contemporary media landscape develops, however, political advertising will continue to be a crucial component in any run for the presidency.
1952 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
During the 1952 presidential campaign, it appears that the Democrats, led by candidate Adlai Stevenson, were uneasy about soliciting the help of Madison Avenue, just as the major candidates had been in the previous election season. Although it invested in spot advertising, the Democratic Party spent far less than the GOP on it and, instead, threw more of its weight behind the airing of 30-minute programs that featured speeches by Stevenson and other political endorsers. Some of the themes in his advertising included his purported courage; the political inexperience of his Republican opponent, General Dwight D. Eisenhower; Eisenhower’s association with the anti-Communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy; the purported threat of Republican leadership sinking the citizenry into another depression echoing the Great Depression; and the notion that Stevenson was someone, as the spots put it, who would “talk sense to the American people.”
Soon-to-be-President Eisenhower, on the other hand, was probably the first national candidate to demonstrate the efficacy of televised political advertising. The Republican National Committee awarded its advertising account to BBDO, with Ben Duffy heading up the agency’s initiative. The Citizens for Eisenhower Committee also retained an agency, which eventually produced TV programs, commercials, and, in conjunction with the Disney studio, a cartoon that featured an “I Like Ike” jingle. Eisenhower backers believed he possessed a likeable personality that would play well on the new medium. Some suspected that his charm could be better delivered through short, casual-feeling appearances than formal speeches. Later, several independent Republican operatives called on the services of the highly regarded advertising man, Rosser Reeves, who enthusiastically championed the use of spot advertising, which would be placed between two regularly broadcast network shows. Working with Michael Levin, an employee of Erwin, Wasey &c Co., they devised an advertising strategy that emphasized simplicity and, unlike Stevenson, who rarely appeared in his campaign commercials, Eisenhower himself as the chief on-camera presenter. The General indicated some discomfort in selling himself like a product, yet was ultimately willing to go along with the plan, resulting in the “Eisenhower Answers America” series of commercials. Some of the common advertising themes in the Eisenhower campaign included the candidate’s leadership potential and Stevenson’s connection with the incumbent Democratic president, Harry Truman, who had become very unpopular. While the Stevenson side advanced the campaign slogan, “You Never Had It So Good!” the Eisenhower team countered with “It’s Time for a Change.” Given Truman’s standing with the public, the Republican slogan probably had more resonance.
The Republicans also employed additional television tools, such as broadcast speeches, a drama, and other political shows. On the whole, their TV campaign was in all probability viewed as more entertaining than the Democrats’ fare. Yet it was the Republicans’ advertising that represented the biggest innovation of the election season and signified how future campaigns would be waged. Reeves and many others concluded, however, that Eisenhower would have won even if they had not developed the commercials. Indeed, the General had gained a reputation during World War II as a hero and, afterward, was a hugely popular public figure. In 1952, a poll conducted by Roper found that Eisenhower was the most admired living American. The GOP’s 1952 advertising legacy is that it triggered concerns about the appropriate role of political advertising that are still lively debated today (see “Controversies Surrounding Political Advertising” below). Moreover, the 1952 campaign conducted by both parties signaled the beginning of the end for the long-form televised speech in favor of shorter formats, especially TV spots.
1956 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
The 1956 presidential election pitted the same two men who had run against each other in the previous campaign—Democrat Adlai Stevenson and now incumbent Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This time around, the Democratic Party was not as resistant to the services of Madison Avenue, recognizing that to successfully compete with an exceedingly popular man in the White House, it had to exploit the same tools as its competitor. The party also launched a type of advertising that generated controversy and continues to be disputed to this day, namely, the negative, attack TV commercial. While the form had been foreshadowed in 1952, the accusations in that year’s spots were mostly mild and indirect in comparison to their 1956 descendants. The Democrats forcefully took on Eisenhower in a series of commercials entitled “How’s That Again General?” Each spot first lifted footage from the 1952 campaign that showed the soon-to-be president making a promise, then offered a response by Stevenson’s running mate, who explained how the pledge had not been fulfilled.
The Democratic candidate’s team pointed the finger at the vice president as well, suggesting that Richard Nixon, who was not held in high regard by the populace, could wind up as president should Eisenhower, who had recently suffered several ailments, including a heart attack, pass away. A number of scholars indicate that the set of produced commercials based on this theme actually ran. Yet the political campaign scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1996), who interviewed Stevenson’s director of PR, states that the anti-Nixon spots never aired, partly because the candidate was opposed to particularly overt negative advertising. But despite the actual broadcast advertising challenge to Eisenhower, in the end the election result was the same as it had been four years before; this time, though, the greatly admired Eisenhower won in a landslide in retaining his office.
1960 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
In 1960, many social critics were of the opinion that, given its continuous advancement as a persuasive form, advertising could be a central factor in deciding the next president. Yet the most well-known television event to emerge from the election season was the Kennedy-Nixon debates. One of the most significant strategies the 42-year-old John F. Kennedy used in his advertising, against the counsel of some of his advisors, was to discuss his Catholicism head-on, in hope of disarming those who worried that a first-time Catholic president would take his orders from the pope in Rome. Spots on this issue were aired in West Virginia during the Democratic primary season to help fend off Kennedy’s top opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey. Kennedy continued to address the issue during the general election season, with commercials that pulled footage from a question and answer session he had held with a group of Houston Protestant ministers; his performance during the event is widely acknowledged to have been a masterful one.
For his part, Republican Richard Nixon wished to distance himself from the dubious reputation of Madison Avenue and so formed Campaign Associates, an in-house advertising agency staffed by practitioners who had taken temporary leave from their various agencies to join the Nixon campaign. The candidate was not particularly amenable to his consultants’ advice, nor, it appears, accessible for filming. Thus Gene Wyckoff, a filmmaker who had been hired by the in-house agency, produced a number of five-minute spots, each of which focused on an edited series of still photographs; Wyckoff preserved a sense of motion by panning and zooming the camera over the photos. Despite its reliance on frozen stills, the technique, according to Wyckoff, proved to be effective and gave Nixon a heroic appearance. In addition, Nixon was on hand enough to participate in a string of short spots in which he spoke straight to the camera. Some of these commercials contained echoes of the “Eisenhower Answers America” campaign—Nixon heard a question asked by an off-screen announcer, and then he delivered his reply.
Some Kennedy spots featured the candidate talking directly to the camera; others relied more heavily on either a hired voice-over announcer or a third-party, famous political endorser, such as the candidate’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. The Kennedy team also included a jingle in several of its commercials—the phrase, “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy for me,” was its most memorable line.
Given how close the actual voting results were, it could be that the advertising made a difference in tilting the election toward Kennedy. Still, because advertising is but one variable among many others in the voter decision-making process, it is impossible to know what impact the advertising had.
1964 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
As the 1960s continued, the hard-sell advertising approach advocated by major advertising practitioner Rosser Reeves and many others was being challenged by more soft-sell techniques, exemplified by the work of the legendary advertising figure Bill Bernbach, which emphasized emotional appeals, even humorous ones, over straightforward sales claims. Bernbach, a founder of the full-service consumer advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), is often cited as the leading figure behind “The Creative Revolution” in advertising. The Reeves method of advertising, Bern-bach felt, was too intrusive and did not treat the consumer with the proper measure of respect. Bernbach believed that a campaign did not have to force-feed consumers to be successful. The best advertising, he maintained, could both sell a product or service, as well as entertain or amuse. Often viewed with almost reverence by creative practitioners ever since, Bernbach was hugely influential in the advertising industry and the impact of his philosophy toward creativity in the business is still in evidence today. Although his ideas were developed primarily in relationship to consumer accounts, they carried over into the political arena as well. At the same time, the advertising agencies, which had been mostly linked with a pro-business, Republican sensibility, were becoming more diverse, with a greater percentage of self-identified Democrats and politically liberal-minded professionals joining the ranks. This evolving advertising environment would play a part in the presidential election of 1964.
After the traumatic assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed office and ran for reelection. He was opposed by the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, who had gained a reputation for making particularly incendiary comments, which the Johnson campaign would take advantage of.
The most talked about television episode to emerge from the 1964 election season, indeed, a piece often credited as the most famous (and controversial) political commercial of all time, was the Johnson “Daisy” spot, which strongly suggested that a vote for Goldwater risked the possibility of the Republican starting a nuclear war. The histrionic spot, which was pulled after only one airing yet continued to reverberate because of the hubbub and news coverage it generated, probably reinforced the perception that Goldwater was too explosive to competently handle presidential duties. The commercial was followed up by other spots that, while perhaps not as unrestrained as Daisy, were yet harsh and (sometimes misleadingly) depicted the Republican candidate as a far too risky choice for president—not only was he pictured as a threat to peace but as someone who would destroy the nation’s popular Social Security program as well.
In one attack commercial, the leader of the Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Klan offered an implicit endorsement of Goldwater (although, it appears, the spot was never broadcast because the Johnson staff itself felt it stretched the bounds of fairness too far). Another spot that did air (again only once) presented a young girl who was licking an ice cream cone while being invisibly poisoned by Strontium 90, a likelihood brought about, the commercial alleged, by a Goldwater presidency. The advertisement is also notable because it was perhaps the first political spot to ever employ a female voice-over. Meanwhile, the Republican Party went on its own attack with a commercial that rendered a vision of moral decay under Johnson. Overall, however, the Goldwater spots lacked creativity by mostly focusing on the candidate talking straight to the camera. In the end, Johnson won the election in a landslide, outpacing his opponent 486 to 52 in the Electoral College.
1968 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
As the 1968 presidential campaign approached, the party primary system was expanding. In 1964, there were only three primary contests; by 1992, the number had expanded to 35. Consequently, to efficiently cover broadening territory, targeted advertising campaigns became increasingly necessary. Concomitantly, research technologies, including demographic data systems and opinion polls, were achieving greater sophistication, enabling politicians to better pinpoint constituents they especially wished to reach with customized messages.
Meanwhile, by the time of the 1968 election, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War had made a deep imprint on the nation. President Lyndon B. Johnson, dismayed by his role in the unpopular conflict, announced he would not run for reelection. Subsequently, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic primary and headed up the party’s ticket. On the Republican side, after an eight-year respite, Richard Nixon decided to once again vie for the presidency.
One of Nixon’s key media consultants was Roger Ailes, who was the executive producer of the daytime TV talk show, The Mike Douglas Show. Blending politics and popular culture, Nixon had actually appeared on the program, where he met Ailes and was so impressed with him that he later invited him to apply his expertise to the Nixon campaign. Frank Shakespeare, an executive with CBS, also joined the team. The candidate’s heavily managed race exemplified the growing complexity of using media, especially television, to seek office, so much so that it inspired the author Joe McGinniss to fully describe and analyze it in what would become a classic text on political campaigns, The Selling of the President (1969).
Probably the most controversial commercial produced by the Nixon team took advantage of the discord that had occurred at the Democratic convention, when protesters, consisting of mostly students, were beaten by the police, while inside the hall the ruckus went largely ignored. The spot presented scenes of the mayhem, as well as shots from Vietnam, and then cut to a smiling Hubert Humphrey, giving the impression that he relished these disturbing images. The ensuring backlash prompted the Nixon campaign to pull the commercial from the airwaves, although, in a less coarse manner, it created others with a similar theme, linking domestic and foreign disruption to the incumbent vice president.
On the competing side, Humphrey went in what had become the more traditional route by hiring a full-fledged advertising agency, the renowned DDB. Even though it provided an innovative and strategically advanced plan, DDB later lost the account partly due to its large proposed budget and the Humphrey operatives’ rejection of the spots it pitched. Ultimately, Joe Napolitan, a veteran of past campaigns, supervised the Democratic candidate’s media efforts and headed up his advertising. One notable production was a half-hour telecast that featured a biographical account of Humphrey and the singing of Jimmy Durante. “What Manner of Man” was broadcast seven times on network television and shown on many more occasions by other stations. An example of a spot that generated controversy was a frequently run commercial attacking the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Spiro Agnew, who was lowly esteemed by much of the population. Hired for his creative ability, Tony Schwartz, who had become a political advertising guru of sorts, produced the advertisement. While the line “Spiro Agnew for Vice President” was displayed on screen, the sound of a man laughing uproariously provided an ironic commentary.
On the eve of the election, Nixon and Humphrey each staged a two-hour telethon with celebrity appearances, including Jackie Gleason on the Republican broadcast, and Paul Newman and Frank Sinatra on the Democratic program. In the end, both parties had spent far more money on TV advertising than any other vehicle. The election result was a razor-thin victory for Nixon, who won by less than 1 percent of the total vote.
1972 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
Feeling the need for a more coherent structure than the one that was in place in 1968, incumbent Richard Nixon formed an in-house team dubbed the November Group, which was paid by the also internally organized Committee to Re-Elect the President (often casually referred to by its less than noble sounding acronym, CREEP). Headed up by adman Peter H. Dailey, the November Group was designed to temporarily hire practitioners from various agencies and then be disbanded after the election.
Opposing Nixon was George McGovern, who ran on the platform that he could get the country out of the unpopular Vietnam War and shift priorities from national defense to domestic issues. Political campaign veteran and masterful documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim tried to bolster McGovern’s chances with several long-form broadcasts, as well as a series of five-minute and shorter commercials. Some of the spots used a straight cinéma-vérité approach (footage crafted to look unstaged, a technique Guggenheim was known for) or combined it with shots of McGovern speaking directly to the camera.
The November Group put its emphasis on short spots displaying the incumbent in action. One notable commercial advanced the themes of Nixon as a man of peace and, based on his diplomatic visit to Russia while in office, Nixon as a statesman. Yet, in a tactic meant to put the candidate in a warm light, it supported the messages by featuring the president discussing the ordeal of a 12-year-old girl named Tanya, who had borne the hardships of World War II in Russia. Other spots also attempted to humanize Nixon, who was generally observed as cold and distant. For example, his daughter Tricia told the story in one commercial of how her father had slipped a personal and endearing note under her door on the night before her wedding. The Republican’s media managers, in general, wished to exploit the advantages of incumbency by presenting Nixon as president rather than as a mere candidate. Still, the November Group went on the attack as well. One of the most famous spots (channeled through a subgroup, “Democrats for Nixon,” to distance the president from any appearance of personally mudslinging) to emerge from the campaign was an assault on McGovern’s purported weakness on defense. Using toy soldiers, the commercial showed a hand removing several of them at a time while an announcer stated McGovern’s plan to cut back on military expenses.
Because McGovern was so far behind in the polls as November’s vote drew near, his staff felt the need to create a negative campaign, a common strategy for a candidate who is significantly trailing his or her opponent in the last days of an election season. One commercial even focused on the notorious Watergate break-in; since the illegal activity had not yet escalated into a full-blown public scandal, though, the advertisement had little effect. As the Democratic side became even more desperate, Guggenheim stepped aside and was replaced by the highly regarded Tony Schwartz. But all of the last-minute toil was to no avail, as Nixon won reelection in a rout.
1976 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
Nixon’s 1972 election triumph was short lived. The Watergate scandal came crashing down on him about a year later, soon resulting in his resignation from office in 1974 (see Nixon Farewell Speech). Gerald Ford, who had become vice president after Spiro Agnew’s earlier resignation, assumed the presidency and ran for election (his first, giving him the distinction as the only person in U.S. history to become both vice president and president without a vote) in 1976 to maintain office. Following the hiring and firing of two media teams in several months, he turned to the political consulting firm Bailey, Deardourff and Associates for help. The business in turn hired copywriter Malcolm MacDougall, who had gained prominence through his work with clients such as Oldsmobile and Titleist. The Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, a relative unknown at that point, secured the services of Gerald Rafshoon, a former publicity and advertising director for Twentieth Century Fox, who had worked on Carter’s campaigns for governor of Georgia in 1966 (which he lost) and 1970 (which he won). Because of amendments that had been added to the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, the 1976 contest became the nation’s first heavily federally funded presidential campaign and each side operated with the same amount—about $22 million. Ultimately, roughly 50 percent of the budget went to advertising, with about 60 percent of this ad expenditure going toward television. These percentages, which have held relatively steady throughout the years, attest to the ever-progressive significance of advertising during presidential campaigns. Equal spending limits in general, however, favor the incumbent, since he or she typically receives much additional media coverage, free of charge, by simply carrying out the duties of the office.
To familiarize the population with Carter during the primary elections, Rafshoon produced a five-minute film that depicted the candidate as a “real” man, wearing blue jeans and boots, and walking through a peanut farm. On the other side, despite his image as a “nice guy,” Ford had, whether fairly or unfairly, acquired the reputation of being a “bumbler” (thanks in no small part to Chevy Chase’s parody of him, complete with stumbling and pratfalls, on the comedie variety show Saturday Night Live; also see Ford, Gerald [Media Portrayals]). Thus the Ford team set out to depict him as a strong leader. The staff produced a campaign theme, “I’m Feelin’ Good about America,” and a jingle to deliver it over visuals of happy people. Ford advertising also presented biographical material designed to help the public better know the candidate and inspire it to regard him as warm and upright. Carter’s staff also took a high road of sorts, showing him as a family man with traditional American values. Against the backdrop of Watergate, both candidates wished to demonstrate that they were men of strong moral character. Consequently, their commercials tended to be less polished than those that had aired during the three previous election seasons. Instead, the spots often employed more straightforward techniques, such as the candidates directly addressing viewers and everyday people giving personal testimonies.
In the final days leading up to the election, Carter brought in Tony Schwartz, who had acquired a reputation as a seasoned, political advertising expert, to produce a series of radio and television spots, several of which, just in case, took an attack approach, and some of which were targeted toward particular constituencies. Ford’s campaigners also segmented their market; in one memorable series of programs aimed at key states, the baseball celebrity Joe Garagiola leant his endorsement. Attack spots rounded out the advertising arsenal. On the evening before the vote, both candidates broadcast long-form shows. The next day, Carter won the presidency in a close contest.
1980 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
By the end of Jimmy Carter’s term in the White House, a common perception was that, although he appeared to be a decent human being, the president was “weak” and his administration was inept. Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate in 1980, meanwhile, quickly earned the distinction of being a master of television. Given his earlier career as an actor and a commercial spokesperson, especially for General Electric, he was comfortable with the medium. Accordingly, Reagan spoke directly to the camera in his commercials, much more than candidates had done in recent presidential election seasons. Peter H. Dailey, the media specialist who had assisted Richard Nixon in 1972, was hired to head up an in-house agency, named Campaign ‘80. John Anderson, running as an independent, rounded out the field, but eventually dropped out.
Despite Carter’s low standing, he still had the advantages of incumbency, and his campaign team, again led by Gerald Rafshoon, attempted to depict him as a world leader. In some spots, for example, he was shown in action during the Camp David accords, which were regarded as one of his top success stories. On the other hand, some commercials went negative, with messages that included the projection that Reagan’s economic policies (originally termed by George H. W. Bush during the Republican primaries as “voodoo economics”) would hurt the nation and the insinuation that Reagan, at 69, was too old and mentally feeble for the presidency. Carter’s team also strove to reinforce the fear that Reagan might be too predisposed to starting a war.
On the Republican side, the commercials for Reagan mostly sounded a positive tone. Reagan’s strategy played to his strengths: whether accurately reflecting the real man or not, his media image was nearly untarnished (except for the belief held by many that he was overly hawkish). A five-minute advertisement that aimed to paint an inspirational summary of Reagan’s life and political record was heavily broadcast. At the same time, the candidate was not entirely averse to waging attacks, although they were often indirect or at least kept Reagan out of the picture. For example, the GOP lifted and broadcast footage from speeches Edward Kennedy had given during the Democratic primaries, in which he had blasted Carter on his performance as president. Such a tactic has often been implemented, especially when one side’s candidate has all but been assured while the other party’s nominee has had to survive a hotly contested primary season. Primary campaigns, indeed, often provide fodder for later attack advertising—one party can resurrect criticism once directed at the eventual winning candidate from the other party by an intraparty challenger who ultimately failed to gain the nomination. Using a “surrogate,” rather than the candidate himself or herself, in attack advertising is also very common. Political consultants frequently believe that personally engaging in mudslinging can weaken the perception of a candidate, making him or her appear too vindictive and unsuitable for office. Letting others carry out the attacks, they reason, will help the candidate stay above the fray and seem more honorable.
It appears that Carter’s advertising was never able to counter his reputation as a weak leader. What is more, unlike the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Republican National Committee ran a considerable amount of advertising of its own, some of which instructed the audience to “Vote Republican for a Change.” Finally, in response to a 1976 Supreme Court Ruling that allowed independent organizations to spend money on political campaigns, a number of PACs produced advertising as well—these PACs channeled far more expenditures toward the support of Reagan than Carter.
On the night before the election, both candidates aired long-format shows. Carter’s 20-minute program was narrated by the actor Henry Fonda. Meanwhile, Reagan’s 30-minute vehicle did not physically include any celebrities. Yet during his talk, Reagan referred to John Wayne, the famous actor who had recently died, as an emotionally moving symbol of the country. On Election Day, Reagan easily won the presidency, besting Carter by nearly 10 percent in the popular vote and 489 to 49 in the Electoral College. To a considerable extent, Ronald Reagan represented how far political campaigns had come in embracing the services of television. In 1948, Harry S. Truman had flat-out refused to run television advertising. Just over three decades later, Reagan obtained the nation’s highest office, in part, because of his ability to deliver inspiring performances on the small screen in commercials and other formats.
1984 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s reelection was all but certain. He was a very popular president and was in a position to realize the advantages of incumbency. Following the example Nixon had established in 1972, the Republicans formed an in-house election team. Capitalizing on the good feelings Reagan evoked in many citizens, this group of professionals developed a soft-sell series of flag-filled commercials entitled, “Morning in America,” which became one of the most memorable and broadcast campaigns of the 1984 run for top office. In other advertisements, the Reagan effort further tapped into patriotic sentiments with the help of a song by country musician Lee Greenwood entitled, “God Bless the USA.”
Democrat Walter Mondale’s team attacked Reagan on his vulnerabilities, yet its attempts ultimately failed to achieve its objectives. The Republican side proved adept at blunting accusations and sustaining its own case. In probably the most discussed political commercial of 1984, the GOP showed a bear that came face-to-face with a young man holding a gun. At the close of the commercial, however, the bear took a step back, suggesting that the man had stood down the threat. The accompanying voice-over announcer made it clear that the bear symbolized the Soviet Union and that President Reagan was the man who could keep a potentially dangerous USSR at bay.
Throughout the months leading to Election Day, Móndale never represented a serious challenge to the incumbent and suffered the worst defeat in the Electoral College since 1936.
1988 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
The advertising campaign for Vice President George H. W. Bush, the Republican candidate for president, unlike his predecessor’s, Ronald Reagan, was anything but sweet. The Bush staff vehemently attacked the Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis, portraying him as too liberal to successfully lead the nation. Subsequent to airing a series of commercials designed to convey a positive image of the Republican candidate, the Bush campaign turned aggressive and went for the jugular. For instance, one spot, using deceptive tactics, blamed Dukakis for the horribly polluted conditions in Boston Harbor. Yet the commercial that stood out from all the others—and some scholars argue, had a large impact on the election results themselves—was the one known as the “Furlough” spot or as “Revolving Door,” which, combined with spin-offs produced by other interest groups, in misleading fashion, cast Dukakis as weak on crime.
Another attack spot that generated a strong reaction used actual footage from a Dukakis campaign stop. In the commercial, Dukakis was shown riding in an army tank. His manner and expression, however, made him look terribly out of place and silly. Once again, this commercial implied, the candidate was too soft for office. The point was underscored by an announcer who presented greatly distorted claims about the governor’s record on defense. The Dukakis team tried numerous ways to dampen the Republican offensive, including the use of several spots that presented what some observers would contend were clumsy (and belated) rebuttals. A number of Democrats also charged that the GOP was staging a dirty campaign in general and “Revolving Door” in particular was racist because it resorted to stereotypes and played into typical Caucasian fears. Earlier, an independently produced spot had established the theme that, under a furlough program in Dukakis’s home state of Massachusetts, some criminals were allowed weekend passes and committed crimes while on leave. As a case in point, the commercial specifically called attention to Willie Horton, a black criminal, and his victims, who were white. Although the “Revolving Door” advertisement created by the Bush team never explicitly mentioned his name, by centering on the same furlough message, the commercial triggered associations of Horton and his violent misdeeds. (Even today, political scholars debate whether the allegation of racism holds merit.) At the same time, Dukakis and his staff employed the services of David D’Alessandro, an agency professional who had made a name for himself by creating a highly esteemed advertising campaign for John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, known as “Real Life, Real Answers,” which featured slice-of-life vignettes that appeared very realistic. When the technique was applied to election politics, however, it seemed to come off as fake and the spots were quickly retired. The Dukakis campaign also aired a set of commercials that questioned Bush’s choice of Dan Quayle, commonly regarded as inexperienced and inept, as his candidate for vice president.
In the end, all of the Democratic efforts were to no avail. After the votes were tallied, having garnered about 54 percent of the popular vote, Bush was again headed to the Oval Office, this time not as the number two man, but as the top person in office.
Various members of the academic community and other critics often point to the 1988 election as an especially poignant example of the problematic role of television commercials—it has even been cited as the most malicious presidential campaign in the history of televised politics (although some claim the 2004 run rivals it). Moreover, a number of scholars even identify the Bush advertising campaign as one of the most important factors, if not the most important one, in Dukakis’s fall. There is probably enough evidence to indicate it indeed influenced voters’ assessments of the candidates. Polls revealed, for instance, that as “Revolving Door” continued to run, more and more people viewed the Democrat as soft on crime. Dukakis’s standing in relationship to the environment also deteriorated once the Benton Harbor spot had made an impression through the airwaves. Such negative representations, some critics say, produce a more cynical electorate. Others note that the attacks were grossly deceiving, a characteristic that TV commercials, through editing and contrived juxtapositions, can readily nurture. Yet defenders of political television advertising counter that maligning opponents, engaging in deception, and image making have always been a part of the election process. In addition, they answer, voters have plenty of sources from which to get information and advertising is but one influence among many others. (Also see “Controversies Surrounding Political Advertising” below.)
1992 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
By the election season of 1992, incumbent George H. W. Bush’s popularity had precipitously decreased. It appears that attention had shifted from the victorious battle abroad during the 1991 Gulf War to the less than stellar performance of the economy at home. The team of Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas and Democratic contender, seized on the issue, using it to define one of its central themes. Meanwhile, a third candidate, Ross Perot, unlike so many other independents before him, mounted a serious challenge to the Democratic and Republican nominees.
Bill Clinton’s staff included communications director George Stephanopoulos and chief strategist James Carville, both of whom achieved a type of fame through their performances in the documentary The War Room, a film that presented a behind-the-scenes look at the Clinton campaign and received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary. Meanwhile, the GOP pulled from Madison Avenue in forming the November Group. The in-house agency featured a number of people who had worked on Bush’s previous campaign. Only after abruptly dropping out of the race in July, and then reentering it in October, did Perot hire the services of the Temerlin-McClain agency, which renamed itself the 270 Group, signifying the number of electoral votes needed to win the election.
Besides featuring longer format biographical films on various occasions, the Clinton side produced a number of radio and television commercials that attempted to depict an empathetic candidate as well as attack Bush’s record. One of its TV techniques was to contrast actual statements pulled from the Republican’s speeches with revelations by an announcer and textual documentation that undermined Bush’s claims and sought to reinforce him as deceitful. As is frequently the case with political advertising, sometimes these spots presented facts in misleading ways.
Just as they had done in 1988, Bush’s strategists opted to run another negative campaign; indeed, they broadcast proportionately more oppositional ads than any prior presidential campaign during the television era had ever implemented. One commercial that stood out displayed two people, whose faces were blocked out, side-by-side. The announcer noted a position that the “candidate on the left” stood for, and then called attention to an opposite stance held by the “candidate on the right.” At the end of the commercial, the faces were revealed and the viewer learned that both people were Bill Clinton. Another spot, one that sparked controversy due to its deceptive use of statistics, featured several workers from various backgrounds; underneath each person, the amount of the additional taxes he or she would supposedly pay under Clinton was displayed. In a third notable commercial, a Time magazine cover with the headline “Why Voters Don’t Trust Clinton” was reproduced on screen. Yet in many cases, when mounting attacks, the Republicans saw Clinton’s tacticians working to defuse each one through commercials of their own. Not all of the Bush spots were negative, however. Because Bush held an advantage in the polls on international affairs, his positive spots often endeavored to deflect attention from domestic policies and indicate the president’s prominence as a world leader. One commercial, for example, contained shots of the Gulf War and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Ross Perot manifested a novel, if somewhat eccentric, approach to running for the presidency. His most significant innovation consisted of giving rebirth to the half-hour political commercial. During a five-week period, Perot aired 11 such programs. In several of them, the candidate talked frankly, challenged the status quo, and employed a broad array of homemade looking charts, using a pointer to present his arguments. The shows attracted a large audience and demonstrated that the long-term format could still be effective.
On Election Day, George H. W. Bush received about 38 percent of the vote, while Perot garnered roughly 19 percent. Bill Clinton, who despite capturing just 43 percent of the ballots, the fourth lowest total for any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history, earned victory. Political pundits often contend that Perot perhaps cost Bush the election because he siphoned off more Republican than Democratic votes.
1996 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
The 1996 presidential election season was, for the most part, uneventful. President Bill Clinton, backed by a relatively strong economy and no serious foreign threats to the nation, was able to almost completely realize the advantages of incumbency. Republican candidate Senator Robert (Bob) Dole of Kansas had little ammunition with which to defeat him. As he had done in the previous election, Ross Perot again entered the race, this time as the Reform Party candidate, but never generated the kind of formidable challenge he had posed four years earlier.
Clinton mounted an advertising blitz over the summer, before Dole, still focused on warding off Republican opponents during the party’s primary season, could direct his attention to the general election. One central message the Clinton campaign team attempted to convey was to portray Bob Dole as an aging and frail conservative who was out of touch with the common citizen. In the end, the presidential election result was decisive. Although Clinton, once more, did not receive over 50 percent of the popular vote, he beat Dole by over eight percentage points. In the Electoral College, the tally was 379 to 159. Perot’s totals were less than half of what they had been in the previous election.
2000 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
The 2000 presidential vote was one of the closest and most controversial elections in U.S. history. On the evening of the balloting, it was becoming clear that whoever won the state of Florida would claim victory in the Electoral College. After the polls were closed, the broadcast news shows originally projected that current Democratic Vice President AI Gore would carry the state. Later, however, the networks retracted their declaration, and then eventually announced that Republican candidate and current governor of Texas George W. Bush had prevailed. Yet the number of votes separating the two in Florida was so small that Gore asked for a recount. Thus set in motion about a month of contentious recounts, court trials, and public relations maneuvering on both sides, a process that was incessantly covered by the news media and followed by millions of anxious viewers. Finally, the issue went before the Supreme Court, which, in a contentious move that continues to be disputed even today, demanded the recount be stopped, essentially awarding Bush the presidency. The election controversy was further exacerbated by the campaign of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Some angry Gore backers felt that Nader was responsible for the vice president’s defeat because he had supposedly siphoned off more Florida votes that would have otherwise gone to Gore than the mere 537 that ultimately determined the contest.
When the 2000 election season had begun, the incumbency of AI Gore was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the U.S. economy had prospered under President Bill Clinton’s and Gore’s leadership. On the other hand, Gore was linked to Clinton, who had recently endured impeachment for lying to—or at least seriously misleading—the populace about his extramarital affair with his one-time intern, Monica Lewinsky (see Political Scandals). Meanwhile, Republican George W. Bush was relatively inexperienced in politics and had gained the reputation, whether fairly or unfairly, of lacking intelligence.
One of the distinctive aspects of the 2000 election season was the wider use of talk shows for political promotion. Indeed, the tendency to exploit a variety of popular culture vehicles had become increasingly common over the years (see “Political Promotion, Popular Culture, and Youth Voters” below). In targeted “battleground” states—those the campaigns felt would decide the election—advertising played a central role. Although Gore was an incumbent, he and his Democratic supporters actually produced more negative attack commercials than the Bush campaign, perhaps because opinion polls usually showed that the Republican had a slight lead. The issue the Democrats seemed to focus on in their spots more than any other was health care, contending that Bush would attempt to privatize the system and, consequently, in their view, dramatically weaken its protections. They also heartily challenged Bush’s tax cut plan. On the Republican side, one of the top issues appeared to be education. The Bush campaign regularly rebuked the Clinton-Gore performance on schooling, even though education had traditionally been a subject discussed more often by Democrats. In one spot, the announcer asked, “Is the status quo in America’s schools good enough? Under AI Gore and Bill Clinton, national reading scores stagnated. America’s high school students place almost dead last in international math tests.” Further, mirroring tactics that had been utilized in past presidential campaigns, Bush staff members also produced advertising that presented statements by Gore, followed by evidence that contradicted those assertions. In this way, they hoped to reinforce the idea that Gore often offered false accounts. Finally, Bush’s advertising repeatedly endeavored to connect Gore with Clinton as a means of questioning the vice president’s sense of morality.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, despite Gore gathering more popular votes than the Republican contender, George W. Bush won the Electoral College, 271 to 266, and took up residence in the White House.
2004 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
If the 2004 presidential campaign season was not as controversial as its predecessor of four years earlier, it was still a polarizing event resulting in a very close election. The incumbent, George W. Bush, had become a highly contentious figure during his first term in office. Particularly after the calamity of September 11, 2001, when terrorists had crashed planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, Bush took measures and conveyed attitudes that some people found deeply troubling while others roundly applauded. Critics of Bush contended that a number of actions represented a draconian response to the crisis of September 11; defenders often acknowledged that these tactics were extraordinary but held that the times demanded such an approach—the president was simply doing what was necessary to protect the citizenry. Keeping the country safe from terrorism and other threats became one of the defining issues of the 2004 campaign.
The advertising campaigns for Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, reflected the mood of the dueling camps inspired by the president’s first term in office. The run for president in 2004 was the most expensive one in history, and a large percentage of each side’s budget was devoted to advertising. At the beginning of the general election, the Bush team produced commercials that emphasized the candidate’s positive attributes. Yet a spot entitled “Safer, Stronger” set off debate early on because it featured a shot of firefighters handling a flag-draped body at the site of the World Trade Center attacks, a scene that angered some viewers, who thought its use was cynical and exploitative. Soon the Bush side also employed negative techniques. In a spot dubbed “100 Days,” its producers claimed that if Kerry were elected, he would raise taxes by $900 billion by his hundredth day in office. Another commercial pronounced that Kerry would impose a gasoline tax that would harm American families. Besides the prospect of Kerry raising taxes, a central theme conveyed by the Bush campaigners was the idea that the Senator was a “waf-fler”; that is, he was prone to making initial declarations, then contradicting those statements later on. A notable spot that vividly reinforced this accusation portrayed a windsurfing John Kerry. As an announcer cited conflicting Kerry positions (for example, “Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again”), the Democrat was shown moving in one direction until the scene flipped to depict him surfing in the opposite direction. At the end of the spot, the announcer concluded, “John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows.”
Many political pundits agreed that Kerry often did not help his own cause in diffusing such attacks: numerous critics labeled him as dull, a problematic characteristic in an age of television. In his advertising, Kerry would, on occasion, directly rebut Bush charges (in one commercial, the announcer contended, “John Kerry has never called for a $900 billion tax increase”). His staff also created positive biographical spots that pictured him as a leader or even a hero. For instance, some TV advertisements included testimonials from Vietnam veterans who had served under Kerry that recalled his bravery in battle (these endorsements would later be contested by the group “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”). Kerry sometimes turned negative as well—his advertising confronted Bush on health care, the economy, the Iraq war, and other topics. For both sides, however, a sizable portion of the most brutal presentations was left to 527 organizations, such as MoveOn.org, the Media Fund, and the Progress for America Voter Fund, possibly because, by allowing surrogates to execute the dirtiest advertising, the candidates themselves would be distanced from allegations of mudslinging.
Yet the 527 group that gained the most notoriety—and whose advertising perhaps had the most impact on the election—in 2004 was called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Its television campaign called Kerry’s reported Vietnam heroism into question, even though many of its claims would later be discredited. Some postelection analyses even supported the possibility that the Swift Boat assault was a major determining element in Bush’s reelection. Then again, deceptive advertising was also produced by the Kerry campaign team and is commonly used in election seasons in general. Once more, as with just about any voting contest, to what degree the 2004 campaign commercials actually swayed citizen’s behavior at the polls is an open subject. Attempting to isolate the influence of advertising from the other factors at work, including election news coverage, convention speeches, and presidential debates, is a difficult, if not impossible proposition.
Although, as he had in 2000, Ralph Nader entered the race, his impact seemed negligible. After the ballots were cast, George W. Bush retained office, receiving about 51 percent of the vote, while Kerry settled for just over 48 percent. In the Electoral College, the tally was 286 to 251 (one vote went to John Edwards, Kerry’s vice-presidential choice, since one elector pledged to Kerry defied convention and voted for Edwards instead).
2008 U.S. Presidential Advertising Campaign
Preceding the 2008 U.S. presidential general election, the Democratic primary season—a process used to determine the Democratic nominee for president—was unlike any other in the nation’s history. First, it involved a very close, highly contested, protracted battle that lasted well over a year before producing a clear nominee. What especially made the primary distinctive, however, was that each of the top two Democratic candidates offered the potential to disrupt the unbroken reign that white men had held on the presidency. Hillary Clinton was a woman. And Barack Obama, a man, was a person of color. Far more people than ever before participated in the primary elections and caucuses, which helped to generate an unprecedented level of excitement and a blitz of media coverage for a process that for many if not most citizens generally goes largely unnoticed. As is commonly the case, particularly since new forms of media had recently begun proliferating, each candidate had to endure various controversies.
For her part, Hillary Clinton attempted to portray Barack Obama, relatively unproven on the national stage, as not ready to lead the nation, especially in regard to potential violent threats from abroad. In one of her most notable commercials, while the sound of a phone was heard, a voice-over announcer informed the audience that it was “3 AM” and “there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world.” As the scene cut between images of children sleeping safely and soundly in their comfortable beds, the announcer asked the audience who it would rather have answering the phone. Although some political pundits contended the spot artfully conveyed a powerful message, a number of critics countered that it was tainted with faintly racist tones. Their argument was that, by showing only white children in a suburban setting and inciting fear of Obama, the advertisement subtly exploited the traditional concern of a “black threat” to orderly society held by a portion of the white population. The Obama team, which sought to position Clinton as a symbol of the status quo, quickly responded (something it became known for throughout the campaign) with a counterattack. The spot appropriated the beginning of the Clinton commercial, portraying the same sleeping children and depicting the identical 3 AM scenario. Once more, the advertisement implicitly asked the viewers who they would prefer to pick up the phone. This time, though, the action shifted to images of Obama while the voice-over continued, “When that call gets answered, shouldn’t the president be the one—the only one—who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start?”
The 2008 Democratic Primary and Popular Culture. Although the 2008 Democratic primary season did not generate nearly as much output from the realm of popular culture as the 2004 general election had stirred, nevertheless, a few moments stand out, which include:
- An online promotional video for Hillary Clinton that parodied The Sopranos (see Hillary Clinton).
- A video posted on YouTube by a backer of Obama that mocked Clinton by combining footage of the candidate with scenes from the famous Macintosh “1984” Commercial, followed by a similar production from a Clinton supporter in rebuttal (see Hillary Clinton).
- Obama’s supposedly preferential media treatment was parodied on two episodes of Saturday Night Live (see Hillary Clinton). Yet Obama’s luster was soon tarnished as the contentious primary calendar continued.
- A series of YouTube videos featuring “Obama Girl,” a woman who declared she had a crush on the senator.
- A widely circulated online music video produced by Will. I. Am of the popular music group The Black Eyed Peas, which celebrated the message contained in Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes We Can.”
Yet perhaps the most significant connection between the Democratic primary campaign and popular culture involved Barack Obama’s “rock star” status itself. To begin, the candidate was especially popular with youth voters. Moreover, demonstrating a capacity to connect with the younger crowd on its own turf, his team masterfully executed an ongoing online initiative that garnered small donations from more people than any primary campaign in U.S. history and maintained enthusiasm by continuously sending out e-mail messages that invited other forms of participation. Touring the country, with his good looks and dynamic oratory skills, the candidate frequently delivered speeches before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, sometimes filling indoor stadiums. News stories reported that, on occasion, a person in attendance would even faint, supposedly overwhelmed from seeing Obama in person. His impact on an audience eventually evoked a kind of backlash, with some journalists decrying the “cult of personality” Obama had incited—one pundit on FOX news even compared him to Hitler because of the way in which both figures could move a crowd.
The 2008 Republican Primary Season. The 2008 Republican primary campaign was to a large extent upstaged by the Democratic contest, which received more media attention and spawned a greater sense of public interest, probably because, among other reasons, the Republican incumbent president had become so unpopular that he had tarnished his party’s reputation and the prospect of either a woman or a man of color occupying the White House seemed to offer a change of direction. Moreover, the Republican primary season contained far less drama than its Democratic counterpart.
Initially, a crowded field of candidates began to take shape, including Fred Thompson, a former U.S. Senator and then current cast member of the television show, Law & Order. Mixing politics and popular culture, Thompson officially declared his intention on an episode of The Tonight Show. Meanwhile, former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, commonly perceived as a dark horse candidate, received the endorsement of “tough guy” actor Chuck Norris. In the end, however, John McCain, who had competed against eventual winner George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, rose to the top and secured the nomination.
The 2008 General Election. Largely due to improvements in organization and media technologies, the advertising war between Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain was unparalleled in the sheer volume of commercials both sides released and the rapidity with which they produced them. During the primary season, Barack Obama had made foreign affairs—particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—a major issue. Initially, he continued to foreground concerns abroad in the general campaign as well. Again and again in his advertising, when on the attack, Obama attempted to link McCain to the policies of the incumbent president, George W. Bush, whose approval ratings had become abysmal. In support of this message, his advertising reiterated that McCain had voted in agreement with Bush 90 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Obama’s central campaign slogan—“Change We Can Believe In”—offered an alternative to the widely unpopular positions of the Bush administration. Still, much of Obama’s advertising refrained from direct challenges to his opponent and was positive in tone, emphasizing values he purportedly stood for such as “hope,” “values,” and “hard work.”
Interestingly, John McCain promised change as well, an unusual approach for a candidate belonging to the party currently in power. Yet because any association with President Bush had become so toxic, McCain hoped to distance himself from the incumbent. Through his advertising and other tactics, McCain continuously reinforced his image as an independent “maverick” who would even defy the Republican Party when needed to advance the cause of, in the words of his campaign slogan, putting “Country First.” But much, if not most, of McCain’s advertising actually focused on Obama. Wishing to undermine his opponent’s pledge to move the nation in a fresh direction and adopt the agent of change mantle himself, McCain strove to define his opponent as overly liberal, a proponent of tax increases, and a “celebrity” who was not fit to lead. If change was the defining theme of the general election, then McCain sought to convince the populace that his version was backed by years of experience his adversary could not match.
Later in the campaign, in response to shifting conditions at home and afar, Obama altered the stress of his advertising. For weeks, the media had consistently depicted the “surge” (a term used to indicate the added troops President Bush had sent earlier in the year to help reduce the level of violence in Iraq) as “working,” which diluted the force of Obama’s assertion that he was against the war from its inception. Meanwhile, starting in September, the United States was hit with a credit and mortgage crisis that threatened to send the economy into a tailspin not seen since the Great Depression. Thus Obama’s advertising devoted greater attention to McCain’s ties to Bush on domestic, rather than foreign policies. In one notable commercial, the Obama team represented McCain as fundamentally out of touch with the common person by referring to a remark McCain had made about being unsure of how many houses he owned (it was revealed to be seven).
Before the economic meltdown, however, McCain introduced his vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, a onetime mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and the current governor of the state. Yet by choosing Palin, not only did he undercut his experience argument, but McCain chipped away at his ability to mock his opponent as a mere star figure as well. Indeed, Palin, recognized for her physical attractiveness and plainspoken expression, immediately took on celebrity status, often drawing more people to her rallies than McCain himself. Yet her lack of national experience was soon clearly conveyed in two news interviews, one with Charlie Gibson of ABC and the other with Katie Couric of CBS. Palin stumbled badly in both appearances, so much so that she was ridiculed in several parodies on Saturday Night Live. The sketches involving Tina Fey, who played Palin, became one of the biggest popular culture phenomena of the season. Posted on YouTube, the satires were viewed by millions of people following their original broadcasts. Along the way, McCain’s advertising turned from attacking Obama on his inexperience to contending that the Democrat was a dangerous choice because the public allegedly did not know enough about him.
But one aspect of the 2008 presidential campaign that truly distinguished it from its predecessors was the degree to which the Internet was used for advertising and other purposes—especially, as alluded to above, by Obama and his staff. If the 2004 campaign was seen as the first “Internet Election” (see “The Future” below), then Obama seized the trend that was led by former presidential hopeful Howard Dean four years earlier and advanced it exponentially. Obama wholeheartedly embraced the Internet as a powerful tool for fundraising, delivering his message, and recruiting and mobilizing thousands of volunteers.
Obama’s new-media team was led by Joe Respars, who had cut his teeth on the 2004 Dean campaign. Added to the group was Chris Hughes, a co-founder of the hugely popular social networking site Facebook, Kate Albright-Hanna, an award-winning producer with CNN, and Scott Goodstein, an expert on text messaging. The new-media strategy assisted the campaign in securing an unprecedented number of small donations and organizing hundreds of thousands of supporters.
Thanks in large part to Albright-Hanna, Obama emerged as the star of his own channel on YouTube. Over 1,000 videos were uploaded on the Web site and viewed by millions of people. Moreover, in a measure designed to involve everyday citizens, the YouTube channel also featured many unknown Obama backers. For example, one 13-minute video portrayed students in a high school in the Bronx, New York, discussing their reaction to Obama’s landmark speech on race, spurred by controversy over the comments of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who had criticized whites and suggested that the events of 9/11 might have been just retribution for white racism. Many of Obama’s advertisements were also included on the channel. Consequently, the candidate’s total advertising campaign had far more impact than it would have had if it had centered on television alone.
At the same time, Goodstein launched an integrated mobile phone program that incorporated text messaging and Obama-themed “wallpaper” and ring tones. By receiving text messages, potential voters were able to keep up with the day-to-day activities of the Obama campaign and receive information about upcoming television appearances and events. Furthermore, the system promoted reciprocity—a staff was in place to answer any questions sent via text from Obama supporters. Perhaps the peak moment of the mobile plan occurred (not without glitches, though) when the campaign declared it would announce its vice presidential pick by text. Unfortunately for the McCain side, it never mounted a serious cell phone challenge of its own.
In addition, unlike McCain, Obama and his team drafted candidate profiles for a variety of social networking sites, including not only Facebook and its chief competitor http://MySpace.com but also lesser known venues such as http://AsianAve.com and http://BlackPlanet.com . At the heart of the Internet initiative, however, was the campaign’s home Web site, My.http://BarackObama.com , overseen by Hughes. New-media specialists generated incalculable e-mails and placed advertisements throughout the Web as a means of attracting people to the site, which contained many of the videos that were also available on Obama’s YouTube channel. Furthermore, in a departure from what had come before, My. http://BarackObama.com (nicknamed MyBO) encouraged interactivity. By signing up, visitors could blog, join groups, plan their own events, engage in fundraising efforts, and volunteer in many other ways. Also, because guests were given the opportunity to communicate with one another, some of the work was carried over to the offline world through thousands of “house parties,” phone solicitations, door-to-door calls, and other activities. Not only that, MyBO actually allowed participants to express dissent. For instance, users formed the group, “President Obama, Please Get FISA Right,” which was devoted to criticizing Obama’s backing of a controversial bill. For a while, it was the largest sublocation on the MyBO network. Here again, although McCain had his own Web page and other online tactics, according to most political observers, they paled in comparison to the level of sophistication and wizardry displayed by the Obama Internet program. Many pundits declared that the new-media strategy implemented by the candidate’s talented staff revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool and changed the face of how future political campaigns would be run, providing a case study that would be analyzed for years. (For additional discussion on the role of new media in campaign advertising, see Chapter 8.)
After the highest voter turnout in decades, Barack Obama claimed victory in the election, winning the Electoral College 365 to 173. As the son of a father from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, he became the first African American, biracial president in U.S. history. His support among youth voters (aged 18-29) was especially strong, probably due in no small part to his capacity to synthesize politics with popular culture. Not long afterward, Time named him its “Person of the Year.”
Trends in Political Television Advertising in the United States
Looking at the big picture—especially since the dawn of the television age in the 1950s—several trends in the history of presidential campaign advertising can be identified. Although a list is seldom exhaustive, it can point to several of the most evident developments:
• The rising prominence of the media consultant. In 1952, during the first presidential campaign season to feature political television advertising, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson was strongly resistant to accepting the assistance of TV professionals in his drive for the presidency. The Republican and eventual winner, Dwight D. Eisenhower, too, although willing to participate in the making of commercials, displayed discomfort with the activity. Moreover, in the early years after television’s introduction, political media practitioners typically operated as technicians who simply carried out the tasks that needed to be accomplished to produce and run advertising. By 1964, this approach was in notable transition. Currently, media consultants are viewed as key and indispensable members of the campaign team—they no longer serve as mere functionaries but are instrumental in planning a campaign, including crafting the themes that the advertising is intended to convey. In developing message strategies, they even play a role in carving out a candidate’s policy positions. Whereas the media team of the 1950s consisted of a somewhat haphazard collection of practitioners who were not particularly well versed in politics, today political media consulting is a full-fledged industry. Any serious attempt to reach the White House now requires the backing of a large staff of professionals engaged in a complex process involving intense research, collection and interpretation of statistical data, planning, strategizing, implementation, evaluation, and adaptation to conditions that can change dramatically from day to day.
• Advertising agencies are eager to back both major parties. Before 1964, advertising agencies and their personnel were often hesitant to work on behalf of Democratic candidates out of fear that it would alienate their existing clients. Given that agencies handled the accounts of large corporations, they were more sympathetic to offering their talents to the GOP, which was widely regarded as the party of big business. Agency decision makers themselves often leaned to the right. Over time, however, people entering the ranks of the agency world were more politically diverse. In addition, corporations have increasingly come to realize that it is in their best interest to express goodwill toward both parties (even if, overall, Republicans usually secure greater financial contributions from big business than Democrats). For years, some Democratic hopefuls struggled to obtain media consultants willing to join their campaigns. Yet in 1964 DDB signaled a breakthrough for Democrats when it openly confessed that it wished to create advertising for President Lyndon Johnson as a means of trying to keep Republican Barry Goldwater from office. Today, there are scores of firms ready to take on political clients regardless of their party affiliations—some of them primarily specialize in Republican causes, while others are mostly loyal to the Democratic side.
• Shorter TV commercials. When politicians began to use television in earnest during the 1950s in support of their presidential campaigns, they frequently devoted much, if not most, of their emphasis to longer formats. Thirty-minute shows were common, as were five-minute spots. Recently, although extended programs have still appeared, especially on the evening of an election, far more weight is placed on short, generally 30- or 60-second commercials. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot revived the long form, but his work represents more the exception than the rule.
• Increasingly expensive campaigns. The cost of campaigning has risen exponentially over the years, and television advertising represents a major element behind escalating expenses. Although various measures have been taken by legislators to regulate the ways in which money is raised and spent, the financial resources it requires to mount a campaign have only increased and this trend is likely to continue.
• Dominance of television. After exhibiting an initial tentativeness toward embracing television as a campaign tool, candidates quickly recognized its irresistible potential and it became central to the process. Before 1950, television was not a factor in elections. Yet by 1960, more money was channeled toward television advertising than any other type, a pattern that has been in place ever since. Still, it is unclear whether television will continue to dominate media expenditures in the future. With its rising significance and popularity, the Internet could challenge TV as the politician’s medium of choice.
• More sophisticated techniques and higher production values. In 1952, soon-to-be President Eisenhower made an impact with primitive commercials, each of which merely depicted a person asking a question, and then Eisenhower offering a brief response (see “Eisenhower Answers America”). It is improbable that such an execution would be efficacious today. As technologies and experience have expanded, political advertisers have become more adept at applying the latest techniques to campaigns. Moreover, research methods have steadily advanced. Campaign teams commonly gather feedback about commercials from audiences before deciding if they will release the spots for broadcast. Pretesting advertising is not foolproof, but it can often help prevent crucial mistakes. Through research and an understanding of consumer psychology and motivation, media professionals are better able to infuse advertising with symbolism that plays on their audiences’ emotions. Just as the creators of general consumer advertising tend to appeal more to feelings than intellect, so too do campaign teams often endeavor to pack their advertising with sentiment rather than a significant amount of information about their candidates’ policies. In seeking office, politicians throughout history have tapped into the hopes and dreams, as well as the fears and anxieties, of the populace. But the degree to which media consultants can currently survey voter values and attitudes and then reflect them in the advertising they develop for their candidates is unprecedented.
Other tendencies in political advertising are more debatable. Some scholars claim that with the rise of television, advertising puts much greater focus on image than policy positions. Yet others counter that the cultivation of an image has always been a part of politics, even if it was not termed as such. There is probably more consensus, however, regarding the idea that image management is indeed a crucial factor in modern campaigns and that there are more resources available than ever before for any campaign team attempting to construct a favorable persona for its candidate. Many critics also argue that negative or “attack” advertising has intensified over time. But here again, other observers contend that heaping scorn on political opponents has occurred throughout the nation’s past. The proportion of advertising devoted to attacks cannot be indicated with a linear, upward sloping line—it varies from campaign to campaign. Still, despite the controversy it generates, negative advertising is a consistent component of election seasons and will in all probability only persist.
Types and Functions of Political Advertising
A number of scholars and practitioners have attempted to sort political television advertising into categories based on its common features, a nomenclature that can be summarized. For instance, drawing from the work of Kathleen Hall Jamieson and L. Patrick Devlin, Brian McNair (2007) outlines eight variations. The primitive commercial refers to a spot created during television’s infancy, when producers had not yet accumulated a storehouse of tools they could use to construct high quality advertising. The 1952 “Eisenhower Answers America” campaign provides a prime example for this designation. A talking head commercial is a straightforward execution that displays a candidate highlighting an issue by speaking directly into the camera. Only a politician who has the skill to adapt his or her delivery to the requirements of television, such as former two-term (1980-88) President Ronald Reagan, is likely to succeed with this kind of spot. Reagan is commonly identified as someone who could speak to a mass audience yet appear as though he were personally talking to each viewer one-on-one.
The negative spot comes in many forms but is characterized by its attack on an opponent. To avoid making the candidates appear too harsh and less than honorable, the scornful messages in these commercials are often delivered by surrogates. For example, during Richard Nixon’s 1972 run for reelection, the president’s handlers established a group called “Democrats for Nixon” and allowed this subsidiary to produce and air anti-George McGovern spots. In this way, Nixon could steer clear of any association with “dirty politics.” Eight years later, in some of his advertising, President Carter himself attacked his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, a decision that probably harmed his reputation as a decent and principled man. Sometimes, primary seasons supply ammunition for potential negative advertising. Intraparty accusations can be picked up by the opposing party and used in its advertising throughout the general election period.
In a concept commercial, the candidate usually does not appear; rather, an idea is advanced through a variety of visual, aural, and narrative practices. For instance, in the 1964 campaign for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, the highly touted DDB agency produced an array of concept spots designed to make dramatic points. In one, taking advantage of a volatile statement that Johnson’s opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, had made—“Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw the Eastern Seaboard and let if float out to sea”—DDB shot a dimensional map of the United States, with a saw carving through the Eastern states. As the scene proceeded, an accompanying announcer reiterated the controversial Goldwater remark.
Cinéma-vérité commercials are those that portray a candidate in ostensibly “real life” settings, although the action is generally rehearsed. A spot of the 2004 Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, shaking hands with people at a rally embodies this technique. Testimonial advertising entails on-camera endorsements by well-known figures or, in its man [or woman]-in-the-street version, everyday people. For instance, in 1980, actress Mary Tyler Moore provided support for Jimmy Carter, while, during the primaries, actor Carroll O’Connor revealed his loyalty toward Democratic challenger Edward Kennedy. Four years earlier, in a commercial for incumbent Gerald Ford, several “average” citizens explained why they backed the Republican, with comments that included, “I think he offers solidarity” and “I think he’s a strong person.” Finally, in the neutral reporter format, the audience is offered, usually via an announcer and suitable visual footage, a series of statements, and then asked to draw its own judgment. Whereas the advertising claims are devised to appear objective, they are actually arranged in such a way as to render the conclusion inevitable and favor the advertised candidate. In 1968, for instance, a spot for Democrat Hubert Humphrey depicted a weather vane in the form of Republican opponent Richard Nixon, with each of his index fingers pointing in opposite directions. As the announcer alternated between drawing attention to one statement once uttered by Nixon and a contradictory position also articulated by the candidate, the weather vane shifted back and forth and eventually spun rapidly. Along the way, the viewer was led to deduce that Nixon was inconsistent in his stands on issues. (Nixon operatives later repeated the weather vane approach in a similar commercial used to attack McGovern in 1972.)
Although these eight categories are by no means exhaustive and can often overlap, they begin to identify patterns that are useful for understanding the rhetorical tactics at work in political commercials. Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates (1992) supply another insightful classification scheme by focusing on what they call the four phases of a political advertising campaign. The first phase consists of ID spots that introduce and establish the basic identity of a candidate. As a case in point, in 1980, during the Republican primaries and before he settled for a spot on the ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush was relatively unknown. Consequently, his campaign staff developed a set of commercials, entitled “Magnitude,” that attempted to make the candidate seem enormously popular. Frequently, ID spots are biographical, such as a 1988 Michael Dukakis commercial that employed scenes from a family album to picture the Democrat as a rousing example of the American Dream.
In the second phase of a campaign, media operatives typically produce argument spots, which are intended to sketch out a candidate’s fundamental policy positions. The 2000 advertising for George W. Bush that declared his “compassionate conservative” approach to politics exemplifies this stage. The politician in the third phase goes on the attack, drawing on the spectrum of strategies available for creating commercials that discredit the opposition. Last, in phase four, which Diamond and Bates label “I see an America …,” a candidate engages in a sort of retreat and, instead, accents positive themes and inspirational messages. On the evening before the 1992 vote, for instance, Bill Clinton’s team aired a short biographical program that borrowed the tone of A Man from Hope, an emotionally stirring film that had been shown at the Democratic convention.
Often, a campaign does not proceed cleanly from one phase to another—but the model supplies a helpful framework for thinking about the advertising during an election season. Yet even before the first phase of a general campaign launches, the meta-campaign is played out. During this stage of the process, promotion is aimed not at the general public but at the political elite—i.e., large financial contributors, party workers, and other potentially influential backers—in an endeavor to secure the support it will take for any candidate to have a chance of becoming the party nominee. Another major target of the meta-campaign is the press, since candidates hope that initial positive news coverage can help jump-start a successful run.
An additional constructive approach to analyzing political advertising involves dividing it into its functions. William L. Benoit et al. (2003) discuss three central groupings for political communication in general. Politicians can acclaim, that is, emphasize their positive characteristics and accomplishments; attack, by criticizing their opponents’ positions, qualities, or record; or defend, which demands refuting any attacks delivered by their challengers. All of these methods of classifying political advertising can assist critics and researchers as they evaluate campaigns.
Controversies Surrounding Political Advertising
Throughout its history, especially since the advent of television, political advertising has generated considerable controversy. The most common complaints about political advertising, as well as the familiar rebuttals to these objections, can be loosely categorized.
• Escalating campaign costs. Television advertising is one of the main elements that has dramatically driven up campaign expenditures over time. Critics charge that the high costs involved in election seasons prevent less than affluent citizens from running for office. From this perspective, candidates are not occupying a level playing field—the one who is able to raise the most money holds a significant advantage. In this sense, elections can be “bought.” For example, Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest people in the world, who had switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party so he could run for mayor of New York City in 2001, was able to personally fund his winning campaign and significantly outspend his opponent on advertising, which included the distribution of video tapes to individual households. In addition, because so much money is needed to mount a campaign, incumbents are forced to devote considerable time to raising funds for their reelection rather than concentrate on fulfilling the responsibilities of their offices. Yet defenders of political advertising answer that no amount of money can salvage a poor campaign; many instances in which a candidate with meager resources beat a well-heeled opponent can be cited. Moreover, some proponents assert that advertising performs an educative function for voters and, accordingly, is well worth the cost. For instance, many citizens have little knowledge of what goes on in Congress from day to day. Yet if a representative or senator casts a vote that, were it exposed, could be unpopular, a challenger in the next election can highlight this decision in an advertisement. Some scholars claim that, since many people are dissatisfied with news coverage and pay less attention to it than political advertising, commercials and ads have the capacity to provide more information to an audience than journalism. Other observers note that advertising expenditures could be lessened if television stations were required to provide free airtime to politicians (which is the case in many other countries). The counterargument to this position is that such government intrusion into private enterprise would violate the free-market system.
• Too much negativity. Critics contend that attack advertising has a damaging impact on the democratic process. They say that the vehement accusations lobbed back and forth are so disturbing that many citizens turn away from political discourse and even shun the polls. These observers draw attention to decreased voter turnouts and indicate that negative advertising is at least partly to blame—it evokes cynicism and disengagement. On the other hand, advocates of political advertising state, it is difficult to determine to what degree negative advertising has contributed to depressed turnout because there are many other factors at work. News coverage of corruption, for example, could incite greater feelings of alienation than a 30-second commercial. Furthermore, these defenders maintain, there was never a Utopian age in which the voting rate was exceptionally high—throughout history, there has been a substantial portion of the eligible electorate that has declined to cast ballots during elections. At the same time, evidence goes both ways: it appears that in some cases, a negative advertising campaign influenced numerous people to refrain from voting, while in other instances, it actually drove citizens to the polls to vote against the candidate behind what they perceived as an unfair attack. Especially heated battles might even provoke greater interest. The 2004 campaign between incumbent George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, for instance, was filled with brutal remarks on each side. Yet the percentage of voters who ultimately went to the polls was higher than it had been in years. In the end, attack and defense are as central to politics as inspiring declarations and self-acclamations.
• Degrading of political discourse. Many political and media scholars believe that political advertising debases political discussion. First, because they generally appear in 30-second versions or other abbreviated formats, advertisements present reductive arguments. Policies that require elaboration and substantial supporting evidence in order to be fully understood and accepted are instead simplistically condensed into visual gimmicks and short sound bites. Second, because of its visual bias, television advertising in particular tends to frame issues in entertaining ways, thus trivializing the nation’s very system of democracy. Dominating the political advertising landscape, TV promotes image over substance, and targets emotions over intellect. Candidates are marketed in the same manner as chewing gum and shampoo. Third, mass advertising has lessened the need to stage rallies and live appearances; as a result, people no longer feel an interpersonal connection to candidates. Consequently, politics has become a spectator sport—citizens are indirectly encouraged to watch the show rather than actively participate in the democratic process.
Conversely, there are various lines of thought offered in rebuttal. First, a considerable amount of information can be delivered in 30-second spots or other short-format vehicles. Perhaps a politician cannot spell out all the reasons for a particular stance in an advertisement, but he or she has enough time or space, in many instances, to clearly articulate a position on a specific issue, which is valuable information in itself. Not only that, although it might be true that an advertisement expresses only a brief message, taken together, the many spots and ads that comprise a complete campaign can be viewed as a protracted argument. Often, each advertisement is simply a compressed version of a point made in a campaign speech. Indeed, a candidate’s acceptance speech at a convention and subsequent stump orations frequently supply the themes that are simply reinforced by the advertising. Furthermore, the practice of abridging complex subjects into pithy slogans was transpiring well before the advent of television. The phrase, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” for example, was coined in 1840 in support of candidate and eventual president William Harrison. Alternately, a long presentation does not necessarily better serve the populace—it too can still smack of shallowness, or it might be so awkwardly constructed that audiences are left feeling confused.
Second, political discourse that is also entertaining should not inevitably be dismissed. It could be that amusing political advertising actually engages more people than dry, stilted discussion. Nor has the political arena ever been devoid of entertaining elements and attempts to shape candidate images at the expense of weighty exposition. Also, if a campaign attempts to manufacture an image that is severely incongruous with a politician’s real personality, the disparity will likely be exposed by opponents, the press, or other sources, which would render the advertising ineffective. At the same time, voters have never decided their choices on the basis of logic alone; feelings have always been a central influence on voting behavior. Furthermore, there is evidence that indicates emotions not only do not automatically detract from rational contemplation but are actually necessary for its operation—feelings and thought are intertwined. Also, communication imbued with emotion is more capable of engaging the citizenry than entirely logical discourse devoid of passion. In any event, today’s audiences, immersed in media their entire lives, are media savvy and therefore likely to see through any manipulative tactics in advertising.
Third, though politicians often do not schedule as many personal appearances as their f orbearers, they yet attend many live events. Furthermore, in the days when candidates or their supporters engaged in more face-to-face encounters, only a small percentage of the population was ever willing or able to be on hand. Political advertising on television or carried by other media enables an unparalleled percentage of the populace to have at least symbolic connection with a politician. Finally, the forces of modernization preclude any move away from mediated politics and toward a largely in person type of campaigning, so to lament the role of television and other media is a waste of energy.
• Sleaziness reigns. Opponents of political advertising often cite how often it degenerates into misleading claims, nasty mudslinging, and unfair attacks. Sometimes advertisements outright lie—or at least seriously distort the truth. Independent PAC and 527 advertising is especially brought up in this regard because it is frequently not held to the standards of accountability to which the candidates and their teams are expected to conform. These groups from time to time take much greater risks and deliver far more controversial statements than most candidate campaigns would feel comfortable expressing. By law, they are required to operate independently from the candidates they support, which perhaps partly explains why they are sometimes willing to be particularly daring. In reality, though, these organizations often coordinate—albeit indirectly and technically lawfully—their efforts with the major parties.
Yet other observers counter that, here again, “dirty” tactics are as old as politics itself. Thomas Jefferson was derided as a heinous atheist, Martin Van Buren was branded a morally suspect transvestite (although different terminology was used at the time), and Grover Cleveland was portrayed as an abusive husband. It could even be argued that modern political advertising is actually a cleaner type of expression than that used by campaigns in the past because it is unavoidably sanitized for home consumption. Perhaps a middle-ground perspective could be honored if political advertising was more heavily regulated. Unlike its general consumer counterpart, political advertising containing even blatant falsehoods will generally not result in government intervention or reprisal. This lax framework is rooted in free speech philosophy and the belief that in the open marketplace of ideas, the best ones will rise to the top while the worst thoughts will be relegated to oblivion. Over the years, rather than the government, the media have increasingly facilitated the weeding out of disreputable declarations in political advertising. Functioning as an advertising watchdog, various media segments, usually housed in news divisions, perform fact-checking responsibilities and seek to debunk deceptive assertions and practices for their audiences. No comparable service in the distant past was ever instituted to offer corrections to the underhanded smears delivered by ruthless politicians.
• The importance of media consultants over politicians. According to some observers, the prominence of political advertising has rendered a situation in which politics is conducted by advertising agents rather than politicians. These media professionals care only about winning the election, the number one criterion for remaining in high demand. Given that after the ballots are cast they will move on to other campaigns, they are not especially interested in how well their candidates will govern if they obtain office. To secure victory at all costs, media consultants will actually influence their candidates’ policy positions, which could prove damaging should the politicians implement (or renounce) these stands after their postelection celebrations. From the reverse point of view, however, media practitioners are no more liable to be ethically compromised than politicians and other “insiders” themselves. As third-party intermediaries, they have greater potential than emotionally close campaign associates to furnish objective advice. Nor can media consultants shove an attitude or an issue down a candidate’s throat—the person running for office can always veto any recommendation.
In summary, critics highlight a number of problems with political advertising. Yet this form of promotion is just one component of a comprehensive political system that, in a complex world, will always be flawed. There has never been a golden age when political campaigns were exempt from the scornful commentary of interested onlookers. Similarly, today’s advertising can be regarded as a continuation of the process that began with the short messages of the banners and broadsides of the nineteenth century. Still, further debate about the merits and disadvantages of political advertising can lead to modifications that will benefit the electorate. Yet eliminating any already entrenched form of political advertising is probably untenable and would likely be renounced by many politically engaged people as a severe infringement on free speech.
The Dubious Impact of Political Advertising
A key issue to politicians, their media consultants, scholars, and other observers is assessing to what extent political advertising has an impact on events. Despite abundant research and speculation, discerning its influence is problematic and evidence about the effects of political advertising is, by and large, inconclusive. It might seem that, given how much money is spent on it, advertising must work. But its efficacy is unclear. In a classic text on general consumer advertising,Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion (1986), Michael Schudson argues that advertising’s power to affect purchasing behavior is limited or even possibly negligible because there are so many other aspects behind why someone chooses one brand over another, including the pull of family members, peers, societal expectations, and other mitigating factors. Furthermore, measuring the effect of advertising by isolating it from all of the other shaping variables involved in a purchase is generally difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Political communication researchers, too, usually point to the complexity of the voting decision-making process and concede that apprehending exactly what role advertising plays in any given scenario is a complicated and often unattainable endeavor. Knowledgeable observers will often claim that even excellent advertising cannot sell an otherwise unpopular candidate. Moreover, other real events or media stories that occur outside the carefully crafted campaign can belie preplanned themes. Other factors being equal, a political incumbent generally has a strong advantage over a challenger because the former has far more access to free of charge media as he or she simply goes about fulfilling the duties of the job— consistent news coverage for a president, for instance, is ensured. Still, research into political advertising’s effects continues and, regardless of its flaws, can indicate some probable conclusions. It appears likely, however, that debate about political advertising’s part in persuading voters will persist.
Research on Mass Media Effects
Investigation into mass media effects began in the 1920s, partly out of concern that they represented a potentially harmful force. In particular, the war time propaganda of World War I and, later, World War II (see World War Propaganda) seemed to demonstrate media’s capacity to manipulate attitudes. For decades, many researchers subscribed to what was later termed the “hypodermic needle” model of media, which is to say that the impact of the media is direct, uniform, and very powerful. Yet in the 1940s, in a highly acclaimed study eventually labeled The People’s Choice, head researcher Paul Lazarsfeld presented findings supporting the idea that the media had very little influence on voting behavior in terms of single-handedly motivating people to change their minds about for whom they would mark their ballots. For years, then, this “limited effects” perspective held sway for the media in general. In recent times, scholars have endorsed various views between these two poles. Generally, researchers convey an understanding that the media are just one of many elements involved in the formation and maintenance of attitudes and behaviors. Different people will interpret messages in diverse ways depending on external cues as well as their own predispositions.
Research into specific media effects on political beliefs and voting performance runs into several problems. Surveys, such as public opinion polls, can yield divergent findings based on how the questions are worded. Some critics argue that these polls can sometimes affect outcomes in their own right: For example, if a voter learns that the candidate he or she favors trails an opponent in the polls by a wide margin, he or she might be less inclined to make a trip to the voting booth, feeling such an effort is futile. Even if actual voting results are interpreted, the relationship between an advertising initiative and the consequent balloting tallies is hard to distinguish. A winning candidate might have run a campaign that was widely regarded as weak; conversely a losing candidate might have executed advertising that reviewers considered especially robust. Experimental research, moreover, suffers from the fact that any investigation is conducted in conditions that do not reflect real world settings. Again, though, in spite of these limitations, some research has produced significant implications. For instance, one study (Rosenberg and McCafferty 1987) provided evidence that a candidate’s appearance—his or her dress, facial expressions, etc.—can shape the way the politician is perceived. It seems to be the case that, since the dawn of television, politicians have had to modify their approach to delivery if they hoped to inspire the electorate. A direct and intimate mode of address reads better on the medium than a cold and formal presentation. For example, political historians contend that the ease with which John F. Kennedy, the first “TV president,” handled TV was a key factor in his victory over Richard Nixon, who looked less than comfortable on the small screen. If this is true, then the physical style that is portrayed in a candidate’s advertising is an important production area to keep in mind.
Contemporary research on the effects of political advertising per se, given its qualifications, has nevertheless rendered a number of insights. Some of it indeed suggests that advertising’s influence is greatly moderated by the existing political attitudes of its audience members. If certain people like a candidate, for instance, they will look with favor on advertising that puts this politician in a positive light and tend to dismiss negative information about the candidate from the opponent’s campaign. In this sense, Lazarsfeld’s study from the 1940s still has relevance. Other research indicates that political advertising’s effects are in inverse proportion to the amount of knowledge an audience has of the candidates or issues—the more information it has digested, the less it will be susceptible to advertising. It also appears that aesthetic qualities do not necessarily make a difference: even a well-done commercial might have no impact on its intended recipients. Ultimately, what can be stated about the influence of political advertising is that producers have control over the construction of the campaign, but not the manner in which the audience will interpret it. Strategically sound messages that are packaged in artistically compelling ways are more likely to benefit a politician or cause than poorly conceived themes and shoddy executions. Political operatives, relinquishing extraordinary sums of money, presume that advertising must have some effect. Accordingly, they do their best to achieve their objectives, sometimes succeeding and other times failing. Put simply, some advertising works, while some does not. Many political historians point to the furlough commercials (e.g., “Revolving Door”) aired during George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign as having made a difference in the election. Conversely, various scholars would assert that even if Adlai Stevenson had run highly captivating advertising in 1956 he still would not have been able to drive the ever-popular Dwight Eisenhower from office.
To what degree advertising affects voting behavior is just one of the questions of interest about its overall impact. Some academics and other critics contemplate its influence on the democratic process itself. One school of thought postulates that advertising manipulates rather than informs voters, and cheapens or trivializes the election atmosphere by commercializing a serious activity. The counterargument is centered on the assumption that politics has never been a fully rational procedure, and that manipulation, image making, and truncated arguments have always been a part of it. Nor are political trends always consistent. Richard Nixon’s image was not commonly placed in high regard, yet, before the Watergate scandal, he won two straight presidential elections. At the same time, voters are not foolish dupes and are able to see through deceptions and arrive at conclusions on their own terms. Finally, advertising does provide useful information and can trigger further exploration to learn about candidates and issues by consulting the plethora of other sources available. Through mass advertising, these proponents state, more people than ever are invited to participate in the democratic system.
Another critique of political advertising, as noted earlier, emphasizes the high cost of running a modern media campaign. Critics point to the disproportionate number of elected federal officials who are economically affluent or even highly rich. Political power, based on this perspective, becomes something that can be bought. Yet, others would answer, money does not guarantee victory—a candidate who squanders funds on a deficient campaign can be defeated by a politician with far fewer dollars.
Finally, many political scholars argue that televised political advertising in particular has contributed to the decline—but by no means the end—of the influence of the two major parties. For years, major presidential candidates have conducted campaigns that are usually parallel to, yet independent of the promotional activities of the party with which they are affiliated. Through TV, and now the Internet, politicians can more easily speak directly to the population rather than work within the traditional party structure. Television, therefore, has the capacity to mobilize attention far more quickly and comprehensively than political parties can accomplish through grassroots efforts. Accordingly, the backing of party leaders has been partially supplanted by the expertise of media consultants. Perhaps this is one reason why the political primaries, during which, in former times, closed door meetings often produced nominees, have over the past 50 years become more democratic—today, popular primary elections and caucuses help decide who will run for office, usually making the nomination process at the party political conventions a mere formality. Some observers decry this diminution of the role of the Democratic and Republican parties. Others counter that the straighter link between politicians and citizens is a healthy development for democracy. They also sometimes add that when the party machinery was in full operation, corruption and cronyism were frequently rampant. Often, an everyday citizen made a ballot decision not on the basis of which candidate he or she judged as the best choice, but because a favor—for example, a job, a pledge to push through a piece of legislation, or even a covert monetary bribe— would be granted in exchange for the person’s vote.
Political Promotion, Popular Culture, and Youth Voters
The intersection of political campaigns and popular culture is especially apparent in regard to reaching potential youth voters, typically classified as those eligible citizens between the ages of 18 and 29. Although the realm of popular culture is so vast that, at least on some level of interest, it appeals to nearly everyone, it is particularly associated with the young. Over the years, politicians have increasingly recognized the potential of popular culture for targeting this demographic.
Throughout most of the nation’s history, while national campaigns often focused more attention on some regions of the country than others based on the strategic importance of certain states for winning enough electoral votes to carry elections, they did not have the sophisticated arsenal of research and marketing tools to segment their audiences according to narrower demographic categories, such as gender, age, and race. But in the 1950s, as television was rapidly becoming a cultural phenomenon and radio was adjusting to TV’s challenge by breaking up its national programming model into more specialized formats, advertising and marketing professionals in general were gaining a greater understanding of the benefits of segmentation and learning to better tailor campaigns toward different markets. Today, as media technologies and choices continue to proliferate, marketers essentially take for granted that the national audience is exceedingly fragmented and, consequently, channel considerable energy into devising ever more refined tactics for reaching smaller and smaller niches (even sometimes customizing messages for each individual).
Youth voters are usually branded as more politically apathetic and unmotivated than the population at large. A large body of statistics supports the case that the proportion of young people who vote is generally smaller than the portion of older citizens who cast their ballots at the polls. Yet because they represent a sizable constituency, youth voters are still identified as an important market, especially when an election is expected to be close. Lately, to activate this hard-to-stimulate segment, campaigns and interest groups have experimented with a number of novel approaches.
Early Youth Targeted Campaigns
One of the first notable examples of attempting to mobilize young people occurred in the 1968 election season, when Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the Democratic primaries. The McCarthy team recruited scores of energetic and politically engaged young volunteers to support its leader’s candidacy, in an effort that was nicknamed a “Children’s crusade.” Youth voters took on even higher significance in the next election. In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had lowered the legal voting age from 21 to 18, largely due to a voting rights movement that grew out of the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Thousands of people of college age protested that most of the men drafted to serve were not allowed to vote for the very leaders who were responsible for sending them abroad. The slogan, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” captured their feelings of injustice. George McGovern, the Democratic candidate in 1972, strongly opposed the war and pledged to bring American troops home if he were elected. Given that people in their late teens and early 20s were the ones most directly affected by the war, many young adults were drawn to his campaign. Youth from around the country formed a grassroots movement backing McGovern—many of them volunteered on behalf of his run for the presidency. At the same time, the DNC produced advertising that simply encouraged young people to register, believing that they would likely vote for Democrats. Incumbent Richard Nixon’s team countered with a youth advertising campaign of its own. Wrapped around the theme of “Young Voters for the President,” the ads and spots perhaps had an impact. The DNC’s assumption that youth registrations equaled Democratic votes seemed ill founded when nearly half of the new voters chose Nixon on their ballots.
“Rock the Vote” and Other Youth-Centered, Political Interest Groups
Over the past two decades, one of the most visible initiatives that has brought popular culture and politics together for the goal of evoking more civic participation among young people is Rock the Vote (RTV). On its Web site, the organization’s mission reads, “Rock the Vote is dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and empowering young people to change their world.”
Since the founding of RTV, a number of similar independent organizations that fuse politics and popular culture as a means of targeting youth audiences have emerged, some of which are either spin-offs from RTV or at least seem to have been inspired by the group. The 2004 presidential election season pitting incumbent George W. Bush against Senator John Kerry provides an exemplary case study on how various youth-centered initiatives have employed elements of popular culture to achieve their aims. RTV itself was again active in its attempts to mobilize youth voters. But RTV was not alone. Several groups turned to the domain of hip-hop in hope of appealing to black youth in particular. The Web site initiative, http://MoveOn.org , for instance, produced a commercial that mimicked the conventions of a rap music video. Elsewhere, the highly successful rap performer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs launched what he termed the “Citizen Change” campaign. Rap the Vote, an offshoot of RTV that originated in 2000, added its energy to the mix. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), introduced by the hip-hop mogul Richard Simmons in 2001, also fanned the political flames. In the words of its mission statement, HSAN “is dedicated to harnessing the cultural relevance of Hip-Hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the empowerment of youth.” Based on “the belief that Hip-Hop is an enormously influential agent for social change,” among its many endeavors during the run-up to the 2004 election, HSAN sponsored a 2003 summit at which over 10,000 attendees registered to vote and partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Smackdown Your Vote” to try and influence still more young adults to register. Meanwhile, the first ever National Hip Hop Political Convention brought together 3,000 participants to explore the issues that they deemed important through panel discussions, speeches, and performances.
Still other organizations, such as America Comes Together, New Voters Project, and Declare Yourself, sought to target youth in general with comparable tactics, honed by the products of popular culture. The music channel MTV, a vehicle that is commonly identified as a key component of youth culture, again sponsored its “Choose or Lose” campaign. In a related yet distinctive venture, the documentary filmmaker and activist Michael Moore delivered humorous yet politically charged speeches on campuses around the country in his “Slackers Uprising Tour.”
To maintain their tax exempt status, these and other similar political interest groups were usually presented as nonpartisan. Generally, their main stated goal was to simply help generate a high youth voter turnout. Still, many observers complained that most of these organizations displayed a pro-Kerry bias. The public sentiment during the 2004 presidential campaign was highly polarized, with one camp widely dubbed as the “anybody but Bush” contingent. Given the perception that young people vote more often for Democrats than Republicans, these critics were sensitive to the possibility that an initiative legally bound to not support a specific candidate could yet do so in an indirect manner. Their critique had some merit, as a number of the celebrities, including P. Diddy, were on record as being opposed to President Bush’s reelection. Despite the political leanings of their backers, though, these groups had to at least operate under the guise of neutrality. At the same time, based on the sheer quantity of parties associated with the organizations, the people working or volunteering for them represented positions along the political spectrum.
In the end, over 4 million more 18-29-year-olds voted in 2004 than in the previous presidential election—an almost 10 percent increase. Yet many pundits gave mixed reviews about young people’s level of participation. Although they had, in fact, cast more ballots for John Kerry, youth voters did not have an appreciable impact on the election because turnout had increased across demographic categories. On the other hand, the number of young adults who voted exceeded the goal of MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign.
Afterward, RTV encountered difficulties and tensions, and today is nearly defunct. Momentum appeared to have diminished for several of the other youth-oriented organizations as well. Yet it seems probable that the objectives and approaches toward new media and popular culture these groups established will continue to be a factor in coming elections, especially if the youth vote is viewed as an important market segment.
Candidate Promotions and Popular Culture
Over the years, various campaigns for political candidates themselves have shown a growing tendency to exploit popular culture for the purpose of reaching a younger crowd. When Richard Nixon appeared on the irreverent comedy sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in the 1960s, his action was broadly regarded as novel and even risky. Yet such behavior eventually became more predictable and is common today. In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton played his saxophone while wearing dark sunglasses on The Arsenio Hall Show and, in front of a studio audience on a program for MTV, disclosed his preference of underwear. Four years later, Republican challenger Bob Dole came on the Live with Regis and Kathie Lee show to publicize an autobiographical book he had just completed. In 2000, major presidential candidates were guests on various entertainment talk shows, including The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Elsewhere, AI Gore discussed the merits of rap music in a televised “town hall” meeting on MTV. Democrat John Edwards officially announced his candidacy on The Daily Show with Jon Stewartthe following presidential election season. Presently, this cable program in particular regularly includes political guests, who generally utilize their visits as a platform for enhancing their images with young audiences. It appears that a carefully orchestrated plan that incorporates ingredients of popular culture will remain a consistent component of any future presidential campaign.
Importance of Pop Culture in Political Advertising
The political science scholar Glen W. Richardson Jr. (2003) argues that many political advertisements, particularly those that appear to have achieved some measure of success, clearly draw from the realm of popular culture, even if their creators might be unaware of this connection. The expressions of popular culture follow certain conventions that trigger specific audience expectations, a process that relates to the concept oí genre, or a type of media narrative characterized by a distinctive style, such as a soap opera. Richardson identifies several popular culture genres according to which various political advertisements over the years could be classified, including horror, satire, pornography, dystopia, testimonial, tabloid TV scandal, family melodrama, altered states, and action hero. For example, with its grainy, black and white photography and ominous music, a 1988 George H. W. Bush commercial that portrayed rival George Dukakis as soft on crime displayed the typical qualities of the horror film. In 1996, the Clinton campaign used a melancholy solo piano track and soft focus photography to produce a mini-family melodrama that asserted Clinton’s opponent, Robert Dole, was a threat to the American family. From this genre-centered perspective, political advertising and popular culture often directly intertwine. Moreover, a fruitful evaluation of an advertisement requires more than simply breaking down its logical claims or exploring its substantive content in terms of whether it takes a “positive” or “negative” approach, or focuses on “issues” or “image.” A political spot is more than a straightforward argument—similar to movie directors or TV show producers, in their commercials candidates present stories that pull from common cultural associations and understandings to appeal to audiences through both reason and emotion.
Other recent campaign commercials provide further examples. In the 1998 Minnesota race for governor, former pro-wrestling entertainer Jesse Ventura’s media team devised a spot that mimicked the production techniques of a toy commercial for an action figure. In the advertisement, which embodied the action hero genre, two boys played with a Jesse Ventura doll battling another toy man who represented “special interest groups.” Two years earlier, a commercial for presidential candidate Pat Buchanan had captured the look and feel of a “reality” police show. Sometimes campaigns borrow a popular song to convey a symbolic message. An independent organization in support of Ronald Reagan, for instance, purchased rights to Lee Greenwood’s country song “God Bless the USA” to furnish its commercial with an inspiring tone.
Occasionally, especially when it is intended to target potential youth voters, a political advertisement is markedly overt in linking to a product of popular culture. During the 1998 run for governor in California, for instance, Libertarian candidate Steve Kubby mocked the two major parties and their nominees with a commercial that featured the characters and crude animation style of South Park. In another example, prior to the 2008 primaries, in her bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton appeared with her husband and former president, Bill Clinton, in a direct parody of the final episode of the highly popular HBO series The Sopranos. Posted on Clinton’s campaign Web site, the spot received additional recognition through blogs, news coverage, and other venues. If future candidates maintain their interest in targeting young voters in the coming elections, the production of commercials that blatantly reference elements of popular culture will likely only increase.
Currently, the state of political advertising is in considerable flux. Although television is liable to continue to dominate campaign expenditures, the Internet and other forms of new media could challenge its reign. Scholars point out that the 2004 run for the nation’s highest office was the first “Internet Election.” Roughly 75 million Americans turned to the Internet for political information, to engage in political e-mail discussion, to make campaign donations or volunteer time, or to participate in more than one of these activities. Web logs, known as “blogs,” also entered into the fray. Since then, these online practices have only escalated.
Internet Advertising Tactics
There are several types of Internet advertising available to resourceful politicians. Candidate Web sites themselves serve as a kind of advertisement. On occasion, spots that receive initial exposure on television are then placed on the Internet for added attention, sometimes in enhanced versions that are not suitable for broadcast. At other times, original commercials are designed specifically for the Internet and e-mailed to millions of recipients. Frequently, these advertisements are infused with humor or interactive features that stir some people to forward them to friends and family members, which further benefits the originators of the messages. In addition, campaigns can place advertisements on blog sites or generate blogs themselves.
The Internet has created the possibility for an unprecedented number of groups— or even individuals—to produce and distribute political advertising. For example, in 2004, the online advocacy organization http://MoveOn.org sponsored a contest that invited people to submit commercials depicting their impressions of George W. Bush in 30 seconds. Jibjab, a two-person operation, crafted a spoof that satirized both Bush and his opponent John Kerry. The cartoon, through “viral” distribution, became so popular that it even received play on network television. Although it was not a commercial per se, it demonstrated the sort of impact a well-conceptualized political advertisement could have as well. During the 2008 election season, an initially undisclosed creator posted a commercial on YouTube that mixed footage from “1984,” a famous Apple Computer commercial (also see Macintosh “1984” Commercial), with the face of Hillary Clinton to mock the 2008 presidential candidate. Soon afterward, another spot, drawing from the same Apple source, took shots at Democratic opponent Barack Obama. There is considerable conjecture regarding how campaigns will manage their political advertising as long-established media combine with the Internet, podcasts (audio files that can be downloaded), distribution on cell phones, and the other new media developments that will surely unfold. For now, politicians will continue to grapple with the best methods of using the fresh tools on hand to gain their objectives. (For a full discussion on the role of new media in politics)