Election 2008

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Political Ads Through the Years

November 04, 2008 04:00 PM
by Jen O'Neill
Politicians have used television ads to disseminate their messages since the 1950s. In this article we look at the different ways politicians have used ads to connect with American citizens.

Political Advertising of the Past

1950-60: Jingles, Kennedy and Nixon

In 1952, Eisenhower was the first American presidential candidate to use the television to transmit his political message, forever changing the nature of political advertising.

In 1960 the televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon was supplemented by ads that were more about style than substance. Nixon’s serious ad, which featured him hovering over a desk and speaking directly to the camera, was a far cry from Kennedy’s bubbly jingle-like ad.

Critics deemed the emphasis on appearance as a form of brand manipulation, as viewers at the time saw political figures like movie stars. During the presidential debate, after appearing on television, many viewers claimed that Kennedy looked like a clean-cut scholar, while Nixon looked like, “death warmed over,” as Don Hewitt, a former CBS television producer, observed.
1964: Fear and the “Daisy Girl”

“These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” These are the words of warning spoken by Lyndon B. Johnson in his “Daisy Girl” commercial. Johnson’s attempt to depict Sen. Barry M. Goldwater as a foolish ringleader is portrayed through a little girl who while peacefully plucking daisy petals, is suddenly interrupted by a violent nuclear explosion. The explicit ad used fear as a tactic to sway the American public; the ad only ran once, but was deemed a success.
1984: Have No Fear, Reassurance is Here!

During the landmark presidential race of 1984, Reagan used an image-oriented campaign, centering on the message that the United States had once again risen to be the leader of the free world. The Democratic Party hoped to capture the votes of Americans by highlighting Reagan’s poor policies during his first term as president. Walter Mondale, Reagan’s opponent, used ads that were seen as dull and intellectual, as they outlined his views on the issues that the United States faced. The American public responded favorably to Reagan’s emotionally charged advertisements, including “Morning in America,” which was “designed to evoke emotion rather than thought or understanding.” Emotion “stays with people longer,” claimed Reagan consultant Philip Dusenbery.
2004: The Bandwidth of Political Messages

Political events organized by musicians, celebrities, philanthropists and spotlight-seekers helped to change “the medium” of the message during the 2004 presidential race. Young, savvy groups, such as MoveOn.org bypassed all expenses and red tape associated with television advertising to create their own political commercials through a “Bush in 30 seconds” contest, engaging over 2.9 million young voters to select the best ad. According to The Village Voice, “The ad competition amounts to something of a newfangled hack on an old gambit,” and displayed, “how the Internet and low-cost technology are chipping away at barriers to political participation.”

Later Developments: 2008: The cycles of the political message

From Xbox 360, along with using the Internet to reach the under age 55 audience, and the use of comedic sketches to support or mock presidential candidates, the landscape of political advertising looks very different than it did 50 years ago. Yet, it seems that the advertisements of 2008 have come full circle, back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower, who, according to Science Daily, “had negative attacks in 69 percent of his ad statements.” William Benoit, professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science, asserts that in this presidential race, “the statements in Obama’s ads were 68 percent negative compared to 62 percent for Sen. John McCain,” whereas in past years, between 1952 and 2004, “candidates averaged 40 percent attacks in their ad statements.”

A total of $200 million dollars has been spent on television ads during the 2008 election season.

Nevertheless, both 2008 presidential candidates have adhered to the presidential nominee’s spirit of “catchy phrases,” such as Clinton’s, “It’s the economy, stupid,” George H.W. Bush’s, “Read my lips,” and Obama’s simplified message of  “Change.”  McCain has kept up with his slew of catch phrases and figurative characters, like America’s new friend Joe the Plumber, and the message of “shoot from the hip.”

We can thank the Internet for the constant accessibility of the candidates, their highly publicized messages and being able to follow their every step on the campaign trail during the 2008 election, even though TV still remains the fastest way to reach the broadest audience of registered voters.

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