Political Advertising

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Advertising professionals first began acting as advisers to political candidates after World War I, although for many years they remained in the background. Albert Lasker, for one, took a leave of absence from Lord & Thomas to assist in Warren Harding's successful 1920 presidential campaign and later to serve in his administration.

The first open involvement of an advertising agency in a U.S. presidential race was in 1936, when Hill Blackett of Blackett-Sample-Hummert worked as a media adviser for the Republican campaign of Alfred Landon. No ads were produced, however; the agency functioned mainly as a clearinghouse for the purchase of radio time for Mr. Landon's campaign speeches.

On election eve, Mr. Blackett arranged for a broadcast "debate" between Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and recorded excerpts of speeches by Mr. Landon's opponent, Franklin Roosevelt. The program was routinely cleared by CBS officials, despite a rigid prohibition against the use of any recorded material by the network (a policy NBC maintained as well). When the program went on the air and management realized the Roosevelt portions were prerecorded, they ordered it cut off immediately.

Chester LaRoche of Young & Rubicam; Bruce Barton of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn; and other prominent ad executives were active in organizing exposure and support for Wendell Willkie in 1940. His first national exposure was as a guest on the radio panel show "Information Please," sponsored by Canada Dry and produced by the J.M. Mathes agency. BBDO worked behind the scenes for Republican candidate Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948.

Modern era

Modern political advertising in the U.S. traces its origins to the elections of 1952, when, for the first time, the political conventions that nominated the presidential candidates—Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower—were broadcast on TV. BBDO and the Kudner Agency became co-agencies for the Republicans. BBDO managed the candidates' rallies and TV appearances and later bought the 30 minutes of TV time in which Richard Nixon gave his celebrated "Checkers" speech.

Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates & Co. also prepared a series of short TV announcements for the Eisenhower campaign. In a single day, Mr. Reeves filmed 40 brief statements by Gen. Eisenhower on a range of issues that became the "Eisenhower Answers America" series. Film of citizens asking scripted questions was shot separately and edited together with Gen. Eisenhower's "responses."

Although they lack production value or elegance, these spots are generally considered the first presidential campaign TV commercials, and they revolutionized national political campaigning. BBDO returned in 1956 and again in 1960 as agency for Richard Nixon's run.

While there was no shortage of Republican supporters among the executives of American advertising, the Democrats were not so fortunate. By 1956, it was clear to both parties that TV would be a critical campaign battleground. Many major agencies were unwilling to take on a Democratic candidate for fear of alienating a valued client, but Norman, Craig & Kummel went after the Adlai Stevenson candidacy with great fervor, stirred in part by a desire to go head-to-head against BBDO.

In charge of the Stevenson campaign were two of the agency's principals, Eugene Kummel and Walter Craig. Among other services, they added touches that were totally new to political conventions, helping the convention manager in Chicago hire singers, performers and a color guard. They also provided the introduction to the keynote speech of the convention in the form of a script written by the agency prior to the convention. Despite its efforts, however, Norman, Craig & Kummel lost the fight to BBDO and Gen. Eisenhower.

Four years later the close contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was decided partly on the strength of their appearance in televised debates. At the same time, one TV spot for the Democratic Sen. Kennedy featured a film clip of then-President Eisenhower responding to questions at an actual press conference. Asked by one reporter if Mr. Nixon, during his years as VP, had put any specific ideas into action for the administration, President Eisenhower answered, "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember." Mr. Nixon was forced to defend his record.

In the Cold War atmosphere of the mid-1960s, political advertising played to Americans' fears. In what political pundits believe to be the most effective use of TV in a campaign, a spot for President Lyndon B. Johnson from Doyle Dane Bernbach showed a little girl in a field of flowers. The tranquility of the "Daisy" spot, however, was broken by its ending, an exploding atomic bomb, none too subtly tagging the president's opponent, Barry Goldwater, a staunch hawk in relations with the Soviet Union, as too trigger-happy to be president. President Johnson ordered the spot to be pulled, but ensuing media attention helped elect him by a landslide.

The amount spent on broadcast advertising for political races grew steadily during the second half of the 20th century. Less than 5% of campaign expenditures in 1952 were devoted to radio and TV time. By 1972, 15% of campaign expenditures went to broadcasting, and by 1988, approximately 20% of nearly $2 billion went to purchase airtime.

By 1996, the presidential campaign was being fought primarily on the airwaves. This was apparent in the primaries. Advertising expenditures in New Hampshire rose from $851,000 in 1992 to $2.7 million in 1996. Without a competitor, Bill Clinton spent $12 million of his $30.9 million limit on TV commercials in the middle of the primaries, $42.4 million during the postprimary/preconvention period and $44 million on TV ads in the general election.

In recent years, most of the political advertising has been done by political ad shops, with the Presidential campaigns often including some sort of amalgamation of experts from various firms, sometimes with some Madison Avenue people. In 2004, President George W. Bush's ad team had some help from several Young & Rubicam executives, while Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry’s early advertising and his media was purchased by Omnicom’s GMMB.

Growing spending on political advertising—spending for 2004 was expected to exceed $1 billion for all campaigns, possibly reaching $1.3 billion—produced a backlash that included passage of campaign finance reform and demands for TV stations to provide free time. The reforms, however, didn’t seem to lessen spending.

By the 21st century, political aspirants were embracing the Web as an alternative to pricey TV campaigns. They also learned that a well-planned Web site could do wonders for raising funds and enlisting young volunteers to work on their campaigns. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean raised more than $30 million in 2003, largely through the development of an e-mail database. The candidate, a doctor and former governor of Vermont, caught Democrats' eye with a 2003 speech in which he claimed, "I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Working with such Web-based organizations as MeetUp.com and MoveOn.org, Dr. Dean sent out e-mail blasts urging email recipients "to take back the country." Indeed, at its high-water mark, MoveOn.org claimed 2 million people in its database.

Special techniques

Because political advertising, unlike product advertising, must achieve results in a short period of time, political practitioners use specialized types of advertising: image, issue and negative advertising. Frequently, candidates follow a formula of concentrating on issue or image ads at the beginning of a campaign to put themselves in a positive light. The most skilled practitioner of such advertising was Ronald Reagan, who used it to good effect in the 1984 campaign.

"Feel good" spots for the Reagan reelection campaign from the famed Tuesday Team (a group of advertising professionals who took leaves of absence from their regular ad jobs to work on the Reagan election advertising) and written by team member Hal Riney (of Hal Riney & Partners) showed patriotic themes while musing on the theme "It's morning again in America." Mr. Riney himself did the voice-over.

The use of negative ads-often saved for the later stages of a campaign or resorted to only when the image and issue ads have failed-has been increasing in U.S. political campaigns. In 1988, one TV spot attacked Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. Showing a photo of an African-American man, voice-over said, "A crime quiz. Which candidate gave weekend passes to rapists and murderers who weren't even eligible for parole? Michael Dukakis." (The ad, later known as the "Willie Horton" commercial, although neither his name nor image was included, was a reference to a state of Massachusetts furlough program for prison inmates; Willie Horton had committed a murder while out on furlough.) That particularly negative ad was influential in Mr. Dukakis' defeat by George Bush.

While glitzy multimillion-dollar ad campaigns in support of political candidates were commonplace in the U.S. by the turn of the 21st century, they remained less utilized around the world. Some countries such as India ban paid TV advertising time, instead using a time-voucher system. Similarly, when elections are called for in many democracies, the campaign period remains quite short-30 days in such countries as Canada.

Nonetheless, the value of a carefully selected advertising agency came to the fore internationally in the late 1970s. Indeed, some believe an ad created by Saatchi & Saatchi for Margaret Thatcher in 1978, then the Conservative Party's candidate for prime minister of Britain, won her the campaign.

The agency seized upon hard times in Britain and created a print ad showing a long, winding line outside an unemployment office. The ad's headline, "Labour's not working," was a direct attack on the Conservative Party's opposition. The advertising brought Maurice and Charles Saatchi worldwide notice and helped them build their London-based shop into an advertising powerhouse.

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