As we continue to suffer through the nonstop barrage of advertising leading up to the November elections, we should recognise that the slavish courting of the electorate is nothing new.From the “Bread and Circuses” approach of those seeking office in ancient Rome, to Napoleon’s creation of a press office called “The Bureau of Public Opinion,” politicians have never been shy about moulding favourable opinions of themselves through mass communication.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that political parties started to bring in advertising agencies and consultants. The New York World Telegram, describing the 1950 Congressional campaign, ran a headline, “THE HUCKSTERS TAKE OVER THE GOP CAMPAIGN.”
Saying that, politicians were using the same techniques employed to sell autos, bath salts and lawn mowers.
The last election not influenced by the adverati was in 1948. Dewey was expected to win in a landslide. 50 out of 50 top political pundits predicted Truman was toast. But “Give ’em Hell, Harry” in those pre-interstate highway days took to the rails, travelling over 30,000 miles, speaking to more than 15 million people.
His re-election ranks as the greatest upset in political history and was the last hurrah for a style of campaigning which no longer exists. Interestingly, Rosser Reeves, of USP fame, tried to persuade Dewey to make some TV spots, but Dewey refused, considering this to be undignified.
Reeves finally got his way with Eisenhower in 1952. His “Eisenhower Answers America” effort is the first example of the significant use of TV ads in politics. He wrote 60 second spots featuring “men on the street” asking soft, pre-recorded questions of the candidate. He then had a reluctant Eisenhower—who is reputed to have said, “To think an old soldier would come to this”—crash out equally well-scripted answers.
Things started to improve in 1964, when the Democrats were smart enough to hire Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, who recognised that voters could be reached by making an emotional appeal suited to Lyndon Johnson’s campaign, reminding them of the administration’s work fighting poverty and providing Medicare, whilst capitalising on the fear that LBJ’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, would fight the cold war with nuclear weapons.
This is regarded as one of the best political campaigns ever, and included the famous “Daisy” TV ad, with the little girl counting flower petals accompanied by a countdown ending in an atomic mushroom cloud.
However, today virtually all political advertising is produced by political consultants, who may be independent, or part of an agency dedicated to political and advocacy accounts. The days when agencies such as DDB worked on Presidential campaigns are long gone. What we have now is formulaic advertising based on rigidly tested and word-smithed concepts that hammer away at one or two points the consultants have decided in their Machiavellian wisdom will have the most impact.
Most of the TV spots are either archive video clips of the candidate delivering a 20 second version of his/her two-minute stump speech, clips of the candidate’s opponent with running titles showing how he/she voted to bring back slavery, or increase taxes by 2,000%.
Others show “concerned citizens” terrified that the candidate’s opponent will turn the country into either North Korea or Las Vegas. Inevitably, each candidate’s advertising ends up being a carbon copy of their competitions.
Today, few ad agencies seek the accounts of political candidates, as they are usually the most difficult clients you could possibly deal with, the schedules are crazy, you have to get signoffs from just about everyone on their staff, and 99 per cent of the people who run for public office are insufferable, raging egomaniacs…
But perhaps, even more tellingly, the reason agencies shy away from political accounts is that if the candidate fails to win the election, there’s a pretty good chance they will not get paid. This is why virtually all media companies who run political advertising expect to get paid up-front; otherwise, they won’t run the ad.
Personally, I think that political advertising serves as a perfect example of what is wrong with advertising in general… It costs an arm and a leg, there’s altogether too much of it, and it’s increasingly becoming less and less effective.
However, if you’ve got a few million to spend in your quest for the office of County Dog Catcher… Give me a call.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.