Today's Political Ads Use Yesterday's Tactics

At New York's Museum of the Moving Image, a retrospective of political campaign ads shows a lot of similarities between the tactics of yesterday and today. The exhibit is a vivid display that times change, but the pitch remains the same.

In 1952, a television ad produced by Walt Disney for Dwight Eisenhower's campaign rang out, "You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike."

Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower's opponent, thought TV commercials were undignified and refused to appear in his own ads. Instead he let singers do the selling.

Stevenson's commercial sang, "I'd rather have a man with a hole in his shoe than a hole in everything he says."

Roster Reeves, who created the M&M slogan "Melts in your mouth not in your hands," believed that if you could sell candy during an episode of I Love Lucy, why not a president?

So Reeves created the "Eisenhower Answers America" TV spots in which Ike would answer questions from allegedly average Americans.

Those ads attempted to show Eisenhower as a man of the people who cares about the people.

In 2000, an ad for George W. Bush tried the same tactic, saying, "George Bush is the compassionate conservative leader America needs."

And almost 30 years prior, Richard Nixon's campaign did it as well. The ad called Nixon "a man of compassion, courage and conviction."

You'll see the same sort of factory workers in ads for both Al Gore and John Kerry in the same kinds of image spots that have been used for decades. The spots are meant to show a man strong yet sensitive, presidential yet humble.

In a 1976 ad, Jimmy Carter tried to portray himself as both a family man and a leader who listens to the people, saying, "My folks have been farmin' in Georgia for 200 years."

Facts and ideas are difficult to express in 30 seconds, so most ads rely on an age-old advertising trick —emotion.

An ad from John F. Kennedy's 1960 election campaign portrayed an American family who needed Kennedy in the White House to help combat rising prices.

Then in 1984, Republican candidate Ronald Regan's campaign produced an ad called "Prouder, Stronger, Better." In it voters were told, "It's morning again in America."

But as we get closer to Election Day, these advertisements, and the normal rules of marketing, get pushed aside.

"If you were selling toothpaste and trying to establish a brand image," said media critic Bob Garfield, "the other toothpaste isn't devoting 90 percent of its marketing to destroying your image."

David Schwartz, curator for the Museum of the Moving Image, sees fear as a favorite tactic for presidential candidates, going back to the 1964 Johnson "Daisy" ad, which showed a little girl picking pedals from a daisy as a voice reads a countdown to a nuclear explosion.

"Fear is the most basic emotion and the easiest one to evoke," said Schwartz. "The famous daisy girl ad … that really evokes a big fear."

Garfield agrees. "The Daisy ad from 1964 was the most caustic and unfair ad ever created because it asked the audience to equate [Barry] Goldwater with nuclear war. The political sensibilities that formed it have emerged in every political election ever since."

In 1988, as George H.W. Bush battled Michael Dukakis for control of the White House, the elder Bush's campaign attempted to paint a picture of Dukakis as soft on crime.

The ad said, "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allows first-degree murders to have weekend passes from prison."

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