Rewind: Eisenhower Answers America -- And Wins

Eisenhower's Campaign Was First to Heavily Rely on Modern-Day TV Advertising

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Caught up in the spirit of the Republican National Convention, we thought we'd climb into the way-back machine and dig up some Republican presidential advertising from the past. Instead of rolling with Reagan and his off-cited "Morning in America" or bottom-feeding with George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad, we went all the way back to 1952, the first presidential race to feature a heavy rotation of TV ads.

Ads such as this one appeared:

That year's contest was between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower would go on to win in a landslide. While Eisenhower's victory can be attributed to the fact that he was an immensely popular war hero running against a man who practically had to be begged to enter the race, we'd like to think that advertising played some small part in the race.

According to The Living Room Candidate, an amazing website put together by the Museum of the Moving Image, Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to rely heavily on spot ads rather than huge chunks of TV time in which the candidate would lay out his positions.

The catchy little jingle in in the above spot was one piece of his ad effort, but we really liked the "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign, which featured Ike answering the questions of real citizens, including African-Americans.

And women:

What's interesting about the "Bus Driver" spot above is how it would be echoed decades later by Barack Obama when he accused Republicans of running the economy into the ditch. (Also interesting is a look at the electoral map to see the handful of states that the decorated war hero and Republican lost.)

Watching the spots, you can see that Eisenhower didn't exactly take to the medium like a duck to water. According to an item in the June 16, 1952, issue of Advertising Age, "Mr. Dwight D. Eisenhower made his political debut on television . . . from a crudely constructed stand in Abilene, Kan. The importance of this debut lay in the fact not only that Mr. Eisenhower was making his first bid for the Presidency via television but there had been a lot of speculation over how he would do on this merciless medium."

How did he do? The reviewer wasn't impressed: "Mr. Eisenhower . . . looked a little old and just a little tired. In many shots, his face resembled a composite photograph of -- of all people -- Mr. Taft and Mr. Truman." That was a bad thing apparently. The unnamed reviewer went on to criticize Eisenhower and his handlers for the candidate being too dull, too stale and devoid of humanity: "In short, it is this reviewer's opinion that if the Eisenhower advisers are going to keep the Eisenhower personality under wraps, they had better keep him off television."

But later in the year, Eisenhower's campaign would be jointly handled by BBDO and Rosser Reeves, who at the time worked for Ted Bates and Co. Reeves got the credit for "Eisenhower Answers America" effort. And it's quite clear that a Madison Avenue professional was in charge.

Stevenson had a slightly different take on the use of such commercials. "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence," he said, vastly overestimating the intelligence of Americans. "This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."

Not that his ads could have sold either. When they weren't awful, they were weird.

In fact, Stevenson didn't appear in his ads. Stevenson, notes The Living Room Candidate, "was the first -- and last -- candidate to refuse to appear in TV ads."

An interesting footnote: Once in office, Eisenhower seems to have made a concerted effort to keep up TV appearances and did so with the help of BBDO. According to a June 8, 1953, article in Advertising Age, Eisenhower and four members of his cabinet "went before the TV cameras to make a report to the nation on the problems facing the government."

The Ad Age writer noted, "As the program progressed, it was clear that it was following the TV maxims of keep-it-moving and keep-it-visual."

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