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The 30-Second Campaign

Even in the era of the Internet, TV ads still play an enormous role in presidential elections. Can you trust them?

By Stuart Elliott


Can a candidate be sold like a soap, soup, or soft drink? That's the goal of political advertising, which in some ways is similar to, but in others is very different from, its product-peddling counterparts.

Like all advertising, political ads are subjective, presenting a biased point of view. Just as a Ford ad is selling Fords, not other car brands, a political ad is selling a specific candidate. That can sometimes be obscured by the noble trappings in political ads, which are often filled with images of American flags, Mount Rushmore, and the White House.

"Don't expect you're going to get objective voter information" from political ads, says Christopher Malone, a political scientist at Pace University in New York. "That's definitely out of the question."

Regardless of their reliability, more Americans are going to see political ads this fall. In recent presidential elections, candidates have focused their TV commercials on "battleground" states like Ohio and Florida, pretty much ignoring the rest of the country. This year, there are more battleground states than usual—as many as 20. And both candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, are running nationwide ads.

Beyond Buttons

Political advertising has been around since the mid-19th century, but it took the arrival of mass media in the 20th century to elevate its importance. Before there were large daily newspapers, national magazines, or coast-to-coast radio and TV networks, political advertising mostly consisted of buttons, banners, and posters intended to generate turnout at local candidate rallies and at polling places on Election Day.

That began to change when radio's reach became widespread, and the first national campaign commercials aired in 1928 for Republican Herbert Hoover (who won) and Democrat Al Smith. But the truly seismic shift in presidential campaigning came when television entered the picture in 1952.

That year, a Madison Avenue advertising executive convinced Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower that the sights and sounds of TV offered the quickest, most effective way to get his message across to voters. Eisenhower was promoted in cartoon-style commercials featuring the upbeat slogan "I Like Ike" (his nickname).

Despite concerns that appearing in commercials would diminish his stature, Eisenhower was also the first presidential candidate to appear in TV ads. The short commercials, titled "Eisenhower Answers America," ran during popular series like I Love Lucy and were a huge hit. (Eisenhower's opponent, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, thought such commercials undignified and ran half-hour speeches on TV instead. In 1956, when he ran against Eisenhower again, he also appeared in TV commercials.)

Tellingly, it was at the dawn of TV campaign ads that their reputation for shading the truth began to develop. While Eisenhower was seen replying to questions from typical voters on issues like the Korean War and the cost of living, it turned out the answers had actually come before the questions.

Questioners had been recruited to read the questions from scripts after Eisenhower's "answers" had been filmed, with the order reversed in the editing process.

"Political commercials pretend to be like documentaries, but they use all the techniques of fiction filmmaking, including scripts, performances, and music," says David Schwartz of the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

'Going Negative'

It did not take politicians long to realize that "going negative" in ads could be extremely effective. In 1964, the campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, ran what is often described as TV's first negative political ad. The so-called "Daisy" spot capitalized on concerns that Johnson's Republican opponent, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons against America's enemies. The ad showed a girl in a field, pulling the petals off a daisy and counting up from one. Then her voice was replaced by an official-sounding male voice, counting down from 10 as a prelude to an atomic blast, which filled the screen with a mushroom cloud as the spot ended. The ad was so controversial that it aired once and was never shown again.

It was, however, successful, and other negative ads followed, especially in the campaigns of 1968 and 1972, when Republican Richard M. Nixon ran for election and re-election. His 1968 campaign used advertising so shrewdly that it became the subject of a popular book, The Selling of the President.

"There is undeniably evidence that a certain kind of political advertising—not just negative, but negative and untruthful—can be effective," says Mike Hughes, president of a Richmond, Va., ad agency. "But I think we have to hold political leaders accountable, telling them 'You are not fit to run the country if you do that.' "

Hughes and others blame the increase in negativity on the fact that most political ads are no longer created by advertising agencies, which, he says, "have to be accurate and truthful" when producing product pitches, but rather by political consultants who specialize in campaign commercials and "don't have to worry about the lawyers." That's because political spots are considered privileged as free speech under the First Amendment, so their content cannot be regulated. By contrast, product ads enjoy less constitutional protection, so false claims can be challenged by the Federal Trade Commission and other regulators.

Negative ads were particularly potent in the 1988 presidential campaign, says David A. Caputo, a political scientist and former president of Pace University. Consultants working for George H.W. Bush, the Republican candidate, produced a variety of aggressive attacks on Michael Dukakis, his Democratic challenger.

Two commercials "were so devastating," Caputo says, that they entered the realm of political lore. One, showing Dukakis looking silly riding around in a tank, portrayed him as weak on defense. The other was intended to paint Dukakis as soft on crime. It showed an ominous photo of Willie Horton, a convict who raped and assaulted a couple while on a prison furlough granted by Dukakis when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

Taking a lesson from the past, observers say, the 2008 presidential campaign has achieved a level of smear and counter-smear sophistication that is unprecedented.

"The speed with which the Obama campaign can respond to allegations has been quite impressive," says Sid Bedingfield, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina.

He adds, "The lesson of the last 20 years is to respond immediately and aggressively, and across a broad front."

This year, there's been a lot of discussion about the impact of the Internet—social networking sites, blogs, and YouTube. Despite all the talk of new media, TV is still where Obama and McCain are spending the most money—about $6 million a week.

The TiVo Challenge

"Most of the people who are watching ads online are political junkies who've already made up their minds," says Tobe Berkowitz, a communications professor at Boston University. "The reason the candidates still buy a lot of TV ads is that it reaches people who don't pay a lot of attention to the campaign."

But that doesn't mean the Internet and other new technologies aren't changing the rules of the game. One challenge for the 2008 campaigns is how to deal with technology like TiVo that allows viewers to skip the commercials.

"Private-sector companies can do product-placement; candidates can't do that," says Dan Schnur, a professor of political science and communications at the University of Southern California. "You're not going to see Barack Obama fighting terrorists with Jack Bauer. You're not going to see John McCain on So You Think You Can Dance."

These challenges may signal the end of TV's long dominance in campaign advertising. "I think this might be the last big presidential cycle where you see these huge amounts of money spent on television," Berkowitz says. "In another four years, who knows what it will be."