hoters pay more attention

Voters pay more attention to political candidates’ TV commercials these days than they do to the nightly news. Television has become the dominant channel for presidential hopefuls to address the public, and in neck-and-neck races like the current one between George W. Bush and Al Gore, advertising is expected to make a difference.

It wasn’t always this way.

Madison Avenue made its political TV debut in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower hired veteran adman Rosser Reeves to create the first presidential campaign spots ever aired. Reeves, best known for the “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” ads for M&M’s candy, had been rebuffed four years earlier by Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, who considered the idea of mixing hucksterism with politics undignified.

Ike’s decision to embrace advertising changed the way modern political campaigns are conducted, according to the Museum of Television and Radio’s current exhibit, “Madison Avenue Goes to

Washington: The History of Presidential Campaign Advertising.” No longer would candidates rely exclusively on whistle-stop tours to get their message out. The era of creating a president’s image had begun.

Eisenhower’s campaign was not afraid to market the presidency the way one would promote soap, despite howls from the Democrats that he had stooped to selling the office. Reeves had Ike take off his glasses and put him in a studio to answer questions from citizens on topics ranging from taxes to Korea. The “Eisenhower Answers America” spots, at a total cost of $60,000, allowed the Republicans to shape Ike’s image as a competent, trustworthy, decent presidential contender.

Television also allowed candidates to craft their own images. Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s running mate, skillfully turned accusations of corruption into political gold with his famous “Checkers” speech. Instead of giving viewers facts about a secret trust fund, Nixon created the illusion that he was “baring his soul,” as he said in the speech.

No one had claimed the Nixon family dog was acquired inappropriately, but Nixon described how his children wanted a dog, that one was sent by a Texan and that they named it Checkers.

“And you know the kids love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Nixon said in the speech. The public bought it, and his popularity skyrocketed.

By 1956, candidates accepted advertising as a legitimate part of their campaign. Adlai Stevenson, running for a second time against Eisenhower, aired the first negative commercial, although he didn’t appear in the ad.

Taking words written by Reeves for Eisenhower four years earlier, Stevenson’s running mate, Estes Kefauver, twisted Ike’s words to make him appear untrustworthy. Asking “How’s that again, General?” he highlighted various campaign promises he said Ike hadn’t kept.

Television had reached nearly every American home by 1960, and a telegenic John F. Kennedy made good use of the medium. His campaign marked the first time ads were shot on location. One commercial captured the candidate at an event directly addressing the issue of being the first Catholic to run for president.

The Kennedy camp also turned to stars like Harry Belafonte to promote their man. It also took the opportunity to feature his attractive young wife, Jacqueline, speaking Spanish to lure ethnic voters.

In addition to running many feel-good ads, the Kennedy campaign also launched a spot that proved the most damaging to his opponent, Richard Nixon. Asked at a press conference to give an example of a major idea Nixon had offered as vice president, Eisenhower responded: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.” The Democrats edited the remarks into TV and radio ads that questioned Nixon’s experience and qualifications to be president.

In 1964, fear of Barry Goldwater was an integral part of the Democratic strategy to secure a win for Lyndon B. Johnson. It was also a rare year in which two ad agencies went head to head: Doyle Dane Bernbach for the Democrats and Erwin Wasey Ruthrauff and Ryan, part of Interpublic, for the Republicans. Shops had previously shied away from directly handling the Democratic ticket for fear of offending large Republican clients—a concern that still exists today, say political pundits.

One memorable Doyle Dane TV spot showed a model of the U.S., with a saw slowly cutting off the eastern part. As the piece drops into the water and floats away, the announcer told viewers that Goldwater thinks the country would be better off if the entire Eastern Seaboard was eliminated.

The most controversial spot of the campaign, and perhaps of all time, was LBJ’s “Daisy” ad. The spot never mentions Goldwater, but visually suggests he is capable of taking the country to nuclear war. It only aired once, during Monday Night at the Movies, but the subsequent media attention gave it increased exposure.

The spot, which is often referred to as negative, is the most misunderstood commercial ever, says media adviser Tony Schwartz, who created it for Doyle Dane. “There was nothing negative about it,” he says. “If anything is negative, it is the thinking of the audience, not the commercial.”

The era of the media specialist began in 1968 with the three-way race between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Campaign costs soared and attack ads became more prevalent. One controversial Democratic spot, also created by Schwartz, showed the words “Spiro Agnew for Vice President” on a TV screen. Viewers then heard a man laughing uncontrollably as the tagline appears: “This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.”

In 1972, Nixon’s advisers decided to create their own in-house agency called “The November Group” instead of contracting an existing shop. Peter Daily of Los Angeles agency Dailey and Associates headed up a team that included Phil Joanou from Doyle Dane Bernbach and William Taylor of Ogilvy & Mather.

By forming their own group, the Nixon campaign “saved the 15 percent of the amount of television and radio air costs an agency holds back as the fee for placing an ad,” argues historian Kathleen Hall Jamieson in Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising.

The formation of special ad teams would be seen again in 1984 with Ronald Reagan’s “Tuesday Team” and this year with George W. Bush’s “Park Avenue Posse,” which includes Young & Rubicam’s Jim Ferguson. The 1984 campaign included such noteworthy feel-good spots as “Morning in America,” produced by Tuesday Team members Ken Roman of Ogilvy & Mather, Edward Ney of Y&R and Phil Dusenberry of BBDO. But it was the advertising in the 1988 campaign that drew the most criticism.

It was that divisive race that prompted David Bushman, curator of the Manhattan museum, to create the current 90-minute exhibit, which features some of the most memorable spots in the history of political advertising.

The 1988 contest between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis elevated the national interest in political advertising, says Bushman. While the tactics used were hardly new—Bush’s often-reviled Willie Horton furlough ad simply played on different fears than LBJ’s “Daisy”—the advertising in the Bush/Dukakis race was widely considered the most negative since 1964, and the most misleading.

“So much of American history is captured in these spots, and that is something I think voters will respond to,” Bushman says of the exhibit, which is narrated by Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press. “People might eventually laugh at this stuff or nod in recollection, but it also gives them a chance to wonder what we as a nation were thinking.”

The 1988 ads were blatantly misleading, and the Bush team led the way. One spot criticized Dukakis for failing to clean up Boston Harbor by featuring an actual sign that read: “Danger/Radiation Hazard/No Swimming.” But it had nothing to do with Dukakis. The sign merely warned swimmers to stay away from a nuclear site that was undergoing repair.

But it was the Willie Horton spot that critics considered the lowest of the low.

“A procession of convicts circles through a revolving gate and marches toward the nation’s living rooms,” writes Jamieson. “The ad invites the inference—false—that 268 first-degree murderers were furloughed by Dukakis to rape and kidnap. In fact, only one first-degree murderer, William Horton, escaped furlough in Massachusetts and committed a violent crime.”

By 1992, the press was more vigilant about questioning ad claims. It was the first time reporters went to great lengths to analyze the assertions made in presidential ads. Bill Clinton’s ad team, aware of the increased scrutiny, used real news footage in their attack ads—the most memorable being one that included the photo of a young Clinton shaking hands with JFK.

Today, the Bush and Gore campaigns remain wary of making too many direct attacks, fearing negative voter backlash. Bush has openly promised a positive campaign, making it difficult for him to respond to Gore’s surge in the polls following the Democratic National Convention. Scholars predict Gore will try to capitalize on this trend with ads that not only attack Bush on his policies, but give voters a reason to vote for the vice president.

The old adage remains true: The more things change, the more things stay the same. h