Op-Ed: The Transformation of Political Advertising

As the 2022 election season comes to a close, highways in Suffolk County are full of political campaign signs making those sequential Burma-Shave signs of decades ago look minimal. For those who were not around when those placards bedecked the landscape, one of their sequences ran: “Within this vale/of toil/and sin/your head grows bald/but not your chin/use Burma-Shave.”

Put up until the 1960s, what became 7,000 signs are credited with leading Burma-Shave to becoming the second best-selling shaving cream in the U.S. I’d say there are well more than 7,000 political campaign signs just in Suffolk these days. Their main purpose: familiarizing voters with the names of candidates.

Then there are fliers and newspaper ads—material in print which highlight the positions on issues of candidates and their backgrounds.

And then have come political TV commercials, and today these commercials are increasingly running on the internet, too. They aim at striking a different chord: appealing to feelings and emotions. This is done mainly by having candidates seem likeable. The commercials also often feature negative attacks on opponents of the nominees illustrated with unflattering photos and videos of them.

In New York State, we are flooded this year with many political TV commercials for incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul and Suffolk Congressman Lee Zeldin in their contest for governor. In Suffolk, candidates for Congress are using TV commercials.

Political TV commercials are expensive. Indeed, paying for them is a big part of the finances of any campaign utilizing them.

The model for the political TV commercial was launched 70 years ago.

It was 1952, and a Madison Avenue advertising man, Rosser Reeves, convinced Dwight Eisenhower to use TV commercials in his run for the presidency. Four years earlier, Reeves tried to interest the prior Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, in the approach. But Dewey “did not buy the idea of lowering himself to the commercial environment of a toothpaste ad,” relates Robert Spero in his book “The Duping of the American Voter, Dishonesty & Deception in Presidential Television Advertising.”

The Eisenhower commercials were coordinated with what became the campaign slogan: “I Like Ike.” Reeves had an early understanding that television best communicates feeling and emotion, not information.

Thus, the Eisenhower commercials presented the former five-star general grinning and appearing likeable—getting to voters’ feelings and emotions and making the strongest use of the TV medium.

The Democratic candidate, former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, tried to counter the blitz of 15-second Eisenhower spots. He embarked on a series of half-hour lectures on TV. Stevenson tried to, as he reflected, “talk sense to the American people.” As National Public Radio has noted, Stevenson “was an old-fashioned intellectual who believed in long speeches and the power of words…So he bought 30-minute blocks on TV, but nobody tuned in to watch.”

I wrote a thesis as a graduate student in the Media Studies Program at the New School for Social Research titled: “The Political TV Commercial as a Pivotal Component in American Presidential Politics.” I analyzed every presidential campaign from the Eisenhower-Stevenson races through each presidential contest up until 1980 (as I received my degree in 1981).

The final race

I wrote about was the 1980 presidential run of Ronald Reagan. Many voters might have disliked his policies, but a substantial number liked Reagan—based on the image he projected through television. With the ability to perform on TV having become a necessary attribute of a presidential candidate, the Republican Party had chosen an actor to run for president. He had been governor of California but previously, for eight years, Reagan performed on TV as host of “General Electric Theatre.”

So, it has gone—highlighted in recent years by Barack Obama, a master at speaking, smiling and being likeable through television, and, for some, Donald Trump, who earlier, for 14 years, performed on TV as host of “The Apprentice.”

I’ve long wondered how George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln would have fared in presidential races which rely on a candidate’s likeability as transmitted in political TV commercials.

Committee to Honor Political Leaders

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