No single force has changed American politics more than television — especially the television commercial. Bill Moyers examines the phenomenon of the “30-second president” and the role of advertising in 20th-century American politics.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Have you ever stopped to think when you pull that lever, what influenced your vote? What made you choose one presidential candidate over another? What did you know about your choice and how did it?
There was a time when everything we knew about the men who would be president we learned from word of mouth. Party faithfuls spread the word at political rallies, torch light parades, barbecues, and even tea parties. And partisan papers, without any tribute to journalistic standards, lavished eloquent adjectives on their favorites and profaned the opposition.
If you were lucky, as time moved on, you might have had a chance to hear the candidate himself as he whistle stopped through town. But things have certainly changed since the turn of the century when William McKinley sat on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, and expected the voters to come by to see him in person.
Today, much of what we know about the candidate, we get directly from the screen in front of you. No single force has changed American politics more than this little box. And the part of the change that’s our subject in this broadcast is the television commercial. It’s given us the 30 second president, who speaks by the skill and with the images of the ad men and women who make the spots that are just to buy this or that, or do this or do that.
The first person to join the medium and the candidate became one of the giants of American advertising. The same man who sold you this —
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: The administration has spent many billions of dollars for national defense. Yet today, we haven’t enough tanks for the fighting in Korea.
BILL MOYERS: — also showed you this.
ANNOUNCER: Take Anacin for fast, fast, fast relief. Now watch what happens when I use Rolaids’s miracle ingredient. All the acid here is taken care of. M&M’s milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
BILL MOYERS: His name was Rosser Reeves.
ROSSER REEVES: When television hit after World War II, everyone in the advertising business was absolutely terrified. No one new how to handle it. No one had ever written advertising for television. No one knew what the techniques were, what the principles were. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between a good and a bad commercial. And it was a very exciting era, naturally, because we were discovering. I mean, we were all Christopher Columbuses, you see.
BILL MOYERS: Rosser Reeves came to fame and fortune on Madison Avenue as the dean of the Hammer at Home School of Advertising. He had a talent for turning television into a merchandise mart and himself into a multimillionaire. As I learned in this interview shortly before his death, Rosser Reeves figured the television audience was, well, sort of an island, waiting to be invaded.
ROSSER REEVES: We began to discover that with very small sums of money, we could register what we call penetration into the brains of 60%, 70%, 80% of all people in the United States.
ANNOUNCER: Fast, fast, fast, relief!
BILL MOYERS: Did that scare you?
ROSSER REEVES: Oh, it frightened. We realized that we had a demon, you know, in our hands. It was a terrifying and exhilarating statistic to us.
BILL MOYERS: Exhilarating?
ROSSER REEVES: Well, of course. I mean, we were in a competitive business. And who can do this best is the man that gets the business.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take some of your most successful campaigns, Anacin.
ROSSER REEVES: Well, Anacin is a very famous headache remedy that’s been around for many, many years. And the Anacin commercial was probably the most outstanding example of all time of real hard sell.
BILL MOYERS: I remember it. I remember from youth. When headaches strike, what do doctors do?
ROSSER REEVES: What do doctors do when headache strikes?
ANNOUNCER: Before you would take anything for headache, stop. And ask yourself, what do doctors recommend?
WOMAN:What do doctors recommend for headache pain?
ANNOUNCER: Here is your answer. Three out of four doctors recommend the ingredients in Anacin. You see, doctors know. When headaches strikes, pain mounts up. You feel dull, depressed. Tension put nerves on edge. Now aspirin has only one pain reliever. Add buffering, you still get only one. But Anacin is like a doctor’s prescription, that is the combination of ingredients to one, relieve pain, two, help overcome that depressed feeling, three, calm jittery nerves.
BILL MOYERS: When it ran, what happened?
ROSSER REEVES: Sales went through the roof.
BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised?
ROSSER REEVES: Yes, I think that was. See, we were all new to television in those days. And we did not know what a thing we had, what a powerful medium that we were working with.
BILL MOYERS: And that was evident?
ROSSER REEVES: Oh, indeed, it was. It was evident to us. We were in packaged goods. And we knew almost instantly when things were working, because we see the goods move right off the shelf. And we discovered the power of television. We just dropped everything else and went for TV.
ANNOUNCER: You get fast relief from pain. Fight depression. Calm jittery nerves.
ROSSER REEVES: It’s very interesting to me. Another side of that coin was the fact that it was perhaps the most hated commercial on the air at the time. The prince of hard sell, they called me. People saw it over, and over, and over again — the hammers and the heads, the spark coil jumping. It was a commercial that almost induced the headache it was supposed to cure. Very interesting point, though, in advertising, that what the public thinks is an unpopular commercial has no correlation at all with the sales.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
ROSSER REEVES: I can’t explain it. It’s just that the commercial is an instrument to get people to remember your advertising.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you did with this one. Because even now, I can see and hear.
ANNOUNCER: Take Anacin for fast, fast, fast relief!
ROSSER REEVES: Those commercials haven’t run in years, and you still remember them.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, I do.
ROSSER REEVES: That’s the name of the game.
BILL MOYERS: You make it sound so simple.
ROSSER REEVES: Well, it is very simple in my opinion. I think most advertising men, they get tangled in their own underwear. You have to be terribly simplistic.
ANNOUNCER: M&M’s milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
ROSSER REEVES: You how many illiterates we have in the United States, people who do not have the verbal skills, who can’t read, people who speak other languages?
ANNOUNCER: This BIC pen, placed in a high-speed drill —
ROSSER REEVES: You have to take what the product has, reduce it to a few essentials that are meaningful to them.
ANNOUNCER: That burning sensation.
ROSSER REEVES: Put it in a memorable television commercial.
ANNOUNCER: BIC doesn’t clog.
ROSSER REEVES: Then spend the money. It’s a very simple business.
WOMAN: I feel great!
BILL MOYERS: All right, let’s take one of your most famous products, Dwight Eisenhower.
ROSSER REEVES: Oh, you can hardly include him as packaged goods, can you?
BILL MOYERS: Well, what was the philosophy behind the Eisenhower ads? How did you decide to package the general?
ROSSER REEVES: Well, I didn’t try to package the general. I did not try to put any words in the general’s mouth. But the general was a singularly inept speaker. I remember that he had made a big speech in Philadelphia. I went to Philadelphia and heard the speech. And I think he covered 27 different points. And the next morning I had my research crew, then I discovered that nobody knew what the general had said.
He was all over the lot. And so we tried to find out what Eisenhower really stood for. You can’t sell 27 things at all. So we selected three. I wanted to select one. Republican National Committee wanted three. And we picked those three — corruption in Washington, the higher taxes, and so on and so forth. He was magnificent, did it all in one day, 44th Street at Transfilm Studios. We thought he would get through four commercials in the day. And he cut 35 or 40 in one day.
BILL MOYERS: Did he memorize them?
ROSSER REEVES: We had some of the highest priced art directors in the world who were down on all four, lettering it on cards. And the general would read it once. He was a very fast study. And he played it perfectly.
NARRATOR: Eisenhower answers America.
WOMAN: General, both parties talk about bringing down food prices. How do we know which party to believe?
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Well, instead of asking what party will bring prices down, why not ask, what party put prices up? Then vote for a change.
WOMAN: You know what things cost today. High prices are just driving me crazy.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Yes, my Mamie gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change, time to get back to an honest dollar and an honest dollar’s worth.
NARRATOR: Eisenhower answers America.
MAN: I’m a veteran, general. What’s wrong down in Washington? Graft, scandal, headlines — how can you fix it?
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Here’s how — by your votes, we’ll get rid of the people who are too small for their jobs, too big for their britches, too long in power.
ROSSER REEVES: And at the end, absolutely exhausted, we were going back to the Commador Hotel to have a drink, he mopped his brow and says, to think that an old soldier should come to this.
BILL MOYERS: Didn’t you record Eisenhower’s answers and then bring in people to ask the questions after they’d been recorded?
ROSSER REEVES: Well, the commercials were written, and the general recorded the answers before we found the people to ask the questions. Yes, that is quite correct.
ANNOUNCER: Eisenhower answers America.
MAN: General, if war comes, is this country really ready?
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: It is not. The administration has spent many billions for national defense. Yet today, we haven’t enough planes for the fighting in Korea. It’s time for a change.
BILL MOYERS: Where did you get the people?
ROSSER REEVES: The people were picked up…we wanted people from all around the country. And I think they were taken from tours of Radio City.
BILL MOYERS: Tours of Radio City.
ROSSER REEVES: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: You asked them, are you a farmer? Are you a housewife?
ROSSER REEVES: Are you a farmer and are you interested in Eisenhower? What questions would you ask him? Then we’d say, would you ask that question? It was photographed on a separate day. And I don’t see any great harm in that, do you?
BILL MOYERS: It was a new technique.
ROSSER REEVES: It was the first time that television had ever been used to try to help a president be elected.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it degraded politics?
ROSSER REEVES: No, they were very simplistic commercials. They look almost naive in terms of modern television technique.
BILL MOYERS: And yet a great howl went up about merchandising the presidency.
ROSSER REEVES: Well, stop and think who remembers? Remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address? People only remember one thing in it — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” There in the middle of an inaugural address was a five second spot, and that’s all people remember. If you take all of Winston Churchill’s great lines. “You will never have so many, owed so much to so few.”
Does anybody remember the speech in which that was embedded like a little fly in amber? It was a spot. It came out. It’s what lingered in the minds of the hearers and in the press. So I simply decided that if that was what democracy’s all about, why not tell more people? And I still defend the technique.
BILL MOYERS: But they accused you of introducing the techniques of Madison Avenue into national politics.
ROSSER REEVES: It was inevitable that it had to happen. I was merely the first one to do it.
SINGERS: Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. You like Ike. I like Ike. Everybody likes Ike for president. Hang out the banner and beat the drum. We’ll take Ike to Washington.
BILL MOYERS: In addition to an advertising budget 10 times bigger than the Democrats, Eisenhower had animation from the Disney studio and the music of Irving Berlin.
NARRATOR: The man from Abilene. Out of the heartland of America, out of this small frame house in Abilene, Kansas, came a man, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through the crucial hour of historic D-Day, he brought us to the triumph and peace of VE-Day. Now another crucial hour in our history — the nation, haunted by the stalemate in Korea, looks to Eisenhower…
BILL MOYERS: The general who had the Allies to victory in World War II appealed to voters grown weary now of war in Korea and politicians in Washington. His ads offered a commander-in-chief and wouldn’t need on the job training. He’d already been a leader of men.
MARION HUTTON: I’d rather have a man with a hole in his shoe than a hole in everything he says. I’d rather have a man who knows what to do when he gets to be the pres. I love the gov, the governor of Illinois. He is the gov that brings the double peace and joy.
BILL MOYERS: The Democrats had Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. But alas, they didn’t have the music of Irving Berlin. Stevenson preferred his own lyrics.
ADLAI STEVENSON: We have done what daughters of democracy thought a democracy could not do. We have yielded neither to the hotheads who wanted to extend the war, nor to the weak-kneed who wanted to quit when the going was tough.
BILL MOYERS: Stevenson didn’t like television or Madison Avenue slogans. He liked to make speeches and puns. Unfortunately for him, the man who said, “Eggheads of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your yokes” had to defend an incumbent Democratic administration that had egg on its face.
NARRATOR: Washington, 1952 — home of the top to bottom mess. Today, all over America, patriotic men and women are jarred by the constant disclosures of graft and bribery in the Washington administrative. Shocked by tales of influence peddling —
BILL MOYERS: But the trouble with calling the other fellow a skunk is that sometimes the wind changes.
RICHARD NIXON: My fellow Americans, I come before you tonight as a candidate for the vice presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned.
BILL MOYERS: The Republican attack on Democratic corruption almost backfired when Democrats spread stories of a secret trust fund set up for Ike’s running mate, Richard Nixon. Party leaders pressured Nixon to resign. Instead, he took his case directly to the voters in a speech broadcast live right after the popular Milton Berle Show. The Checkers Speech, as it came to be known, got the biggest audience of the campaign and saved Nixon’s political career.
RICHARD NIXON: I love my country, and I think my country is in danger. And I think the only man that can save America at this time is the man that’s running for president on my ticket, Dwight Eisenhower.
SINGERS: To get where we are going, travel day and night. With Adlai go the other way, we’ll all go with Ike.
BILL MOYERS: Ike clinched the election with a last minute promise to go to Korea. Although, he never explained what he would do when he got there.
SINGERS: We’ll take Ike to Washington. We’ll take Ike to Washington.
BILL MOYERS: The Republicans were back in the White House for the first time in 20 years. The Democratic National Committee presents another visit with the man from Libertyville. Video here at the end of this lane on a farm about four miles from Libertyville lives Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois.
VOICE: Take one, track 43.
ANNOUNCER: Now here’s the governor.
BILL MOYERS: In 1956, the Democrats tried to fight the popular man from Abilene with the man from Libertyville. This time Adlai Stevenson would be just plain folks. He’d even changed his opinion about television, and he told us so.
ADLAI STEVENSON: But you know, it’s amazing how many things there are in television that you don’t see. But I confess I rather like it. It’s wonderful how sitting right here in my own library, thanks to television, I can talk to millions of people that I couldn’t reach any other way.
BILL MOYERS: The ads portrayed Stevenson and his running mate, Estes Kefauver, as simple, country farmers, standing up for their neighbors.
ADLAI STEVENSON: Most of the key men in the Eisenhower administration are big industrialists. They know big business. They know how to advertise their products. They know even how to advertise their political products. But they don’t know much about the farmer’s problem.
BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s neighbors were speaking up for him.
MAN: I always stop when I reach this particular spot. I look over there at that house. The way you see the lighted windows. A neighbor of mind lives there. Yep, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man with the most important job in the world today. What do you suppose he’s thinking about over there?
BILL MOYERS: International crises in Hungary and Suez, that’s what the president had on his mind. is His ads told us he was too busy for politics, as usual. Just enjoy your prosperity, they said, while Ike tends the store. And don’t forget, he had gone to Korea.
NARRATOR: About four years ago, it was a different story. Four years ago, many of our young men were in Heartbreak Ridge in Korea. And that was no game. But what do you say? Are you willing to bet everything you love and hold dear that Stevenson can also keep us out of war? Are you with that sure of it?
BILL MOYERS: Eisenhower was so popular that the frustrated Democrats tried to chip away at his pedestal with the new blunt instrument of the negative commercial. They used words written for Ike four years earlier by Rosser Reeves.
NARRATOR: How was that again, general? During the 1952 campaign, General Eisenhower promised a great crusade.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Too many politicians have sold our ideals of honesty down the Potomac. We must bring back integrity and thrift to Washington.
NARRATOR: How was that again, general?
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: We must bring back integrity and thrift to Washington.
ESTES KEFAUVER: This is Estes Kefauver. That was another promise the general didn’t keep.
BILL MOYERS: It didn’t work. Many people resented the attacks on their president. So Democrats went after the man who must become president. Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack. And the Democrats ask,
NARRATOR: Nervous about Nixon, President Nixon? Vote Democratic, the party for you, not just the few.
BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, the philosopher from Libertyville was still trying to prove that he was just one of us.
NARRATOR: The Stevensons are returning now from a shopping trip in Libertyville. The governor is helping with the groceries.
BILL MOYERS: Now most of us don’t go grocery shopping in a suit and tie. And doesn’t he know the butter is melting? Governor, oh governor? Don’t look now, governor, but —
ADLAI STEVENSON: Oh Nancy.
NANCY STEVENSON: You were a big help, gov.
ADLAI STEVENSON: Oh, I forgot to deliver the groceries and made a speech instead.
NARRATOR: Who will you vote for? What’s your decision? What do you say?
CHARACTER: Me? I like Ike.
BILL MOYERS: Did they like Ike. Once again he walloped Adlai Stevenson. And after the election, Stevenson proposed that in the future, presidential candidates be given free television time. You can hardly blame him. The Republicans had outspent him at every turn of the dial. Furthermore, Stevenson couldn’t get the best guns for hire on Madison Avenue to work for him, because of their fear of offending their big business clients.
By 1960, nine out of 10 American homes had television sets. So the need for a more level playing field became more apparent than ever, at least to those on the lower end of it. The ad men were also beginning to fear being branded the new villains of politics and of being on the wrong side of the outcome if a fickle public changed its mind. So they started returning phone calls from Democrats. And the networks, well, they made free air time available for presidential debates. So politics was ready to move to a brand new stage. You’re looking at it right now.
SINGERS: Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy Kennedy, Kennedy for me. Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy. Kennedy!
BILL MOYERS: He had been considered by many Democrats as too young, too rich, and in too much of a hurry. Television helped him overcome the obstacles if not the doubts. His spots showed him exchanging views with Americans of all stripes, from classrooms to coal mines. Even the most controversial issue, the one that threatened to cost him the most, he turned to his advantage with ads in which he stood before Protestant audiences to answer questions about his religion.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: Your question is whether I think that if I were elected president I would be divided between two loyalties, my church and my state. There is no article of my faith that would in any way inhibit. I think it encourages the meeting of my oath of office.
BILL MOYERS: Kennedy’s opponents, Vice President Richard Nixon, did not use television as much in his campaign. Nixon’s ad stressed his experience in foreign affairs. Still photographs conveyed a heroic image of the candidate
NARRATOR: Mr. Nixon, what is the truth about our ability to fight the growing menace of Communism?
RICHARD NIXON: Well first, we must recognize Communism for what it is.
BILL MOYERS: Against the advice of his television experts, Nixon opted for the direct approach in his spots, in part because he thought the public would be turned off by a slick campaign.
RICHARD NIXON: —that America won’t stand for being pushed around anywhere in the world. When Mr. Khrushchev says our grandchildren will live under Communism, we must answer, his grandchildren will live in freedom.
BILL MOYERS: Kennedy countered with reminders of anti-American demonstrations that occurred when Nixon travelled abroad.
NARRATOR: If you believe America’s world prestige has gone downhill in these eight Republican years, vote Kennedy for president.
BILL MOYERS: Kennedy’s most effective spot, one used over and over, simply quoted President Eisenhower who was asked by reporters to name one major idea of Richard Nixon’s that Ike had adopted, just one.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER:If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.
BILL MOYERS: Ike’s off the cuff remark damaged Nixon, but the vice president hurt himself even more in what came to be known as the Great Debate.
NARRATOR: Here are some revealing excerpts from the Great Debate.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: Now let’s look at these bills that the vice president suggested were too extreme. One was a bill for $1.25 an hour for anyone —
BILL MOYERS: Appearances were everything. Radio audiences thought Nixon had won the debate. But to TV audiences, he seemed nervous and uncomfortable. He had only recently been in the hospital recovering from an illness. And his refusal to wear makeup didn’t help his appearance. Kennedy’s ad men made the most of it. Spots featuring a shifty-eyed, scowling Nixon appeared right up to election day.
NARRATOR: Americans want to move ahead with new leadership. Let’s elect to John F. Kennedy president.
BILL MOYERS: And they did, by just over 100,000 votes.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: I know what kind of a dream Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy would dream if they were here tonight.
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was the president in 1964. And his opponent did what challengers usually do. He ran against that mess in Washington.
NARRATOR: Graft! Swindles! Bills Juvenile delinquency! Hear what Barry Goldwater has to say about our lack of moral leadership.
BARRY GOLDWATER: We as a nation are not far from the kind of moral decay that has brought on the fall of other nations and people.
BILL MOYERS: In the television campaign that relied on half-hour speeches, Barry Goldwater painted a civilization on the verge of collapse, morally bankrupt at home, and threatened by a creeping Communist menace abroad. Goldwater called for action.
BILL MOYERS: I want American kids to grow up as Americans, and they will if we have the guts to make our intentions clear, so clear that they —
BILL MOYERS: But the central issue of the campaign, exploited by the Democrats, soon became Barry Goldwater’s own intentions.
NARRATOR: In your heart, you know he’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Democratic spots portrayed Goldwater as too far to the right of mainstream America. Their ammunition had been handed them by a bitterly divided Republican Party.
MAN: I don’t know just why they wanted to call this a confession. I simply don’t feel guilty about being a Republican.
BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was asked if he shouldn’t label Goldwater an extremist. No, said the president. Moderate Republicans had done that for him.
MAN: I voted for Dwight Eisenhower the first time I ever voted. I voted for Nixon the last time. But when we come to Senator Goldwater, now it seems to me we’re up against a very different kind of a man.
NARRATOR: Barry Goldwater said, sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea. Even his running mate, William Miller, admits that Senator Goldwater’s voluntary plan would destroy your Social Security.
BILL MOYERS: But the President did want to remind voters that Senator Goldwater had talk loosely about tactical nuclear weapons. After Goldwater had cracked that maybe we ought to lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin bumper stickers said, in your heart, you know he might. One, two — This spot never even mentioned Goldwater by name, but proved to be one of the most controversial in the history of advertising.
GIRL: Seven, six, six, eight, nine, nine —
MAN: 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of god’s children can live are to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.
NARRATOR: Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
RONALD REAGAN: I’m Ronald Reagan. Every American should hear what Barry Goldwater really has to say, not what a bunch distorters of the truth would have you believe.
BILL MOYERS: The actor Ronald Reagan came riding to Barry Goldwater’s defense in one of his first nationally televised speeches. But neither he nor other Republicans could save the Goldwater campaign.
BARRY GOLDWATER: Our opponents are referring to us as war mongers.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Well, Barry, in my mind, this is actual tommyrot.
BILL MOYERS: Even the beloved Ike couldn’t help. Johnson won by a landslide.
BILL MOYERS: 1964 was some year in the evolution of political advertising. I know because I was in the middle of it. It seemed a long time ago now, 1964. I was a young man up from Texas, a son of the New Deal, working for someone, Lyndon Johnson, who himself 20 years earlier had said that FDR was like a second daddy to him.
I was a special assistant at the White House, and one of my jobs that year was to be a liaison for the president to the people who had been hired to create the advertising for the campaign. That was the agency of Doyle Dane Bernbach. They were famous for the Volkswagen campaign. Remember that marvelous slogan, Think Small? They also did the Avis campaign, we try harder.
BILL MOYERS: They were departing from the hard sell strategy of Rosser Reeves. And one of the men to whom they turned — I never met him, by the way, until the year or so ago — was a brilliant young fellow named Tony Schwartz. He was among the first of a new class of players in presidential politics, the media specialist. It’s a long way from the torchlight parade of the last century to Tony Schwartz.
TAPE RECORDER: Have you thought about the vice presidential candidates?
BILL MOYERS: For 20 years, scores of politicians have made the pilgrimage to this windowless sanctuary of sound in midtown Manhattan. Here Tony Schwartz has created some of the most effective commercials for Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Jimmy Carter, not to mention Coca-Cola and Alka Seltzer.
Tony Schwartz began his career as an artist. But in the 1950s, he began to experiment with tape recorders and launched a new career that would establish him as the wizard of sound. In his commercials, Schwartz aims at the seat of emotions far within the subconscious. He doesn’t like the label soft sell that has been used to describe his work. This is no soft sell, says Tony Schwartz. It’s deep sell. The daisy spot is perhaps the best example of Schwartz’s emotional deep sell. It only aired once in that campaign, and yet it is still talked and written about all these years later.
BILL MOYERS: Now what does that commercial do?
TONY SCHWARTZ: This commercial is really a Rorschach pattern. It reminds me very much of the person who will go to a psychologist and be shown the ink plots and say to the psychologist, doctor I didn’t come here to be shown dirty pictures.
BILL MOYERS: The dirty pictures being —
TONY SCHWARTZ: In their mind. Now the dirty thing, or negative thing, if anything was Goldwater wanting to use or seeing as an option the use of tactical atomic weapons. People didn’t hear the word tactical. They just heard Goldwater atomic weapons, Johnson no atomic weapons.
BILL MOYERS: Or didn’t this commercial exploit the seeming simplicity of Goldwater’s statement?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: I remember that when it aired, the White House switchboard was jammed with calls. Many of the president’s own friends got through to him. He called me and said, what in the expletive deleted is going on here? I said, it seemed to me that you did what you wanted to do, which is to remind people of what Barry Goldwater had been saying about atomic weapons. And there was a long pause on the phone, and he said, yeah, I guess you’re right. Was it unfair?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I don’t think so at all. I think it probably was right on target.
BILL MOYERS: What did it do?
TONY SCHWARTZ: It made people aware of this basic difference. And it really showed the underlying fear that people had of atomic warfare. And I think Goldwater should have said the next morning that this commercial should be the theme of the presidential campaign, and I’d like to pay for half of its running. And that is, how do we prevent atomic warfare in our day and age? He could have killed that whole commercial that way, I think.
BILL MOYERS: And he didn’t.
TONY SCHWARTZ: And he didn’t It fit. His saying foul says it fits. That’s me they’re talking about. We didn’t say it. He said it.
BILL MOYERS: Rosser Reeves said of commercials, we realize we had a demon on our hands. Do you agree with that?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I came into it when it was already here, so I didn’t see it as a demon. But I feel that it’s probably one of the most important things in changing our lives and restructuring our lives.
BILL MOYERS: In what way?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I think that television has restructured the way we shop, the way we learn, the way we entertain ourselves. And just all the important things in our lives have been restructured by television.
BILL MOYERS: Has it restructured politics?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. We find that the political parties are no longer the major communications force in politics. The networks are. You might say the three parties are ABC, NBC, and CBS.
BILL MOYERS: What has it done, Tony, to the selling of presidents and political candidate?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I don’t use, and I don’t like, the term “selling the candidate.” I don’t use advertising techniques to quote “sell candidates.” Many people say you shouldn’t sell candidates the way you sell soap. I wouldn’t even sell soap the way they sell soap. They try to throw things at the consumer. They use the consumer as a target, and I use the consumer or the voter as a workforce.
BILL MOYERS: A workforce?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Yes. And that’s the difference between TV commercials and print. They are emotional. You react to them. You hear and see things and react to them, rather than go through the process of reading and thinking in a different way. For instance, if I were to say to you, Mary had a little —
BILL MOYERS: Lamb.
TONY SCHWARTZ: Or, for the rest of your —
BILL MOYERS: Life.
TONY SCHWARTZ: These are things that are stored in your mind from your experience in life. And I can invoke them with what I say. And that’s where you become workforce in the process.
BILL MOYERS: I become your workforce.
TONY SCHWARTZ: That’s right. I use polling to find out what’s in your mind in relation to things we’re going to talk about. We test before we do commercials. The advertising community likes to test their commercials. I find no value to it. We don’t test the commercials. We test the public and see whether after we’ve run the commercials whether the attitudes they have have changed. If they have, then the commercials are working.
BILL MOYERS: Well that newspaper clipping on your wall over there says, “snaring votes means hitting emotions.” That’s what it is.
TONY SCHWARTZ: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And how do you decide how to hit those emotions?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Up on the wall there, you can see those records. I’d been recording the people and life of New York for 40 years. I’ve had the experience of how people react. I even did an interesting thing. I performed in a nightclub for five or six years on Saturday nights, just playing tapes of people. And I found how people reacted to people. I would play children. I would play taxi drivers.
BILL MOYERS: So what did you learn from this that you’ve brought into politics?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I learned what people reacted to. I learned how people reacted to hearing people and to sound.
BILL MOYERS: This Tony Schwartz ad for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 used 30 separate instruments to create this noise which he calls the sound of a headache. [SOUND OF A JET]
BILL MOYERS: George McGovern decided not to use this 1972 spot that combined the eerie sound of jets with this wrenching image from television news. Like the Daisy commercial, the opponent’s name is never mentioned. The only words were spoken by Schwartz’s five-year-old son.
BOY: Does a president know that planes bomb children?
TONY SCHWARTZ: People say, how can you educate the public about issues with commercials? The fascinating thing is that’s not the function of commercials. You or our listeners have their opinion about all the issues. If I were to say to you, do you have an opinion about the death penalty? You’d say, yes or no. You have it one way, about abortion, about the economy. You have your position on that.
The education that takes place in commercials is to find out what the candidate’s position is. Does he feel the same way I do about these things? And that’s what we tried to do. We tried to communicate the candidates’ feelings about things that people feel deeply about. In an interesting way, we find that politics is probably the most task-oriented area of advertising that ever existed.
BILL MOYERS: Task-oriented?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Yes. In product selling, you can go up 3% a year and be happy. You can lose 3% a year and be happy. But in politics, you have a one-day sale. If you put it in advertising terms, you have every customer allowed in the store for one or two minutes on that day. And you have to sell a majority or plurality of the market or you are out of business.
BILL MOYERS: In 1968, there was no incumbent running for reelection. President Johnson retired over the stalemate in Vietnam. And the race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. This time it was the Democrat who fought openly at their convention, forcing Humphrey to lead a divided party. Outside, demonstrators clashed with Chicago police. These scenes became part of the networks’ campaign coverage. In the public mind, Vice President Humphrey shared the blame for the war in Vietnam, giving Republicans an issue they exploded in spots like this one.
NARRATOR: This time vote like your whole world depended on it.
ANNOUNCER: The vice president of the United States.
HUBERT HUMPHREY: We have seen the terrible results of violence in this country. It would be intolerable if a handful of violent people, and that is what it is, just a handful, could harden up against needed change.
BILL MOYERS: At first, Humphrey’s television spots pictured a man on the defensive. Instead of counter-attacking, he stressed his accomplishments.
NARRATOR: The 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare, the Job Corps, Project Head Start — get behind the man behind them all. Hubert H. Humphrey for president.
RICHARD NIXON: Never has so much power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam.
BILL MOYERS: Nixon hammered at the Vietnam issue with emotional ads and an attractive promise.
RICHARD NIXON: I pledge to you, we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.
NARRATOR: Some men will tell you anything. Mr. Nixon pledges he’ll end the war in Vietnam. But Spiro Agnew has Nixon has no plan.
BILL MOYERS: Trailing badly, Democrats changed their advertising. They commissioned Tony Schwartz to produce a series of negative commercials attacking Nixon directly. Humphrey began to close the gap.
NARRATOR: Some men will tell you anything to get the job, while other men are interested in the truth.
BILL MOYERS: But it was too little too late. Humphrey lost by less than 1% of the vote. You also did a commercial in that campaign about Agnew as vice president. What did your research show about him?
TONY SCHWARTZ: The research showed that Agnew as a potential president was a joke.
BILL MOYERS: Before the campaign actually began?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you had to play on that?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I mean, it showed that people didn’t think of him as a meaningful candidate for vice president.
BILL MOYERS: Because he wasn’t qualified to be president?
TONY SCHWARTZ: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Well, let’s see how you used that.
TONY SCHWARTZ: OK.
BILL MOYERS: It’s still funny. But I remember Bill Safire in The New York Times snarling that that was the most distasteful, unfair, and insulting commercial ever on television since the Daisy commercial. Did that bother you?
TONY SCHWARTZ: No.
BILL MOYERS: So what are you trying to do there?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I’m trying to say that you’ve got to think carefully of the team, that they’re both important, because if this guy dies, we could be left with a real lemon.
BILL MOYERS: How do you decide where to hit an opponent?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Based on our research. Research shows how people feel. If research would show that the hit is unbelievable, you shouldn’t do and wouldn’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: You’re trying to make a true case against your opponent.
TONY SCHWARTZ: That’s right. I had a situation come up in the McGovern campaign —
BILL MOYERS: 1972.
TONY SCHWARTZ: —when Larry O’Brien came to me at the end of the campaign and said, I’ve just got to show them that we could have done some good commercials. Because there are four ways people can vote for or against either candidate. And Larry O’Brien and I felt more votes could be gotten against Nixon than for McGovern.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Were you with the Third Marines?
MAN:No, I was with the Americal division.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Oh yeah. I had a son-in-law at Chu-Lai.
NARRATOR: Most of them were safe in grade school when this man first spoke out against the war.
BILL MOYERS: George McGovern’s ad stressed his early opposition to the Vietnam War. Here, surrounded by veterans, he asked for their support.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I love the United States, but I love it enough so I want to see some changes made.
NARRATOR: McGovern, right from the start. The McGovern defense plan — he would cut the Marines by one third.
BILL MOYERS: While McGovern talked about America, Nixon talked about McGovern.
NARRATOR: Senator Hubert Humphrey had this to say about the McGovern proposal — it’s cutting into the very security of this country. President Nixon doesn’t believe we should play games with our national security. He believes in a strong America, to negotiate for peace from strength.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying that if he had gotten people to think about voting against Nixon he might have done better than the one state he carried?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Exactly. And I did five commercials for McGovern that Larry O’Brien asked me to do. They ran only two of them. This was one that got on.
MAN: Well, either way it won’t be a disaster. What am I looking for? I mean, so I’ll vote for Nixon. Why rock the boat? I’m not crazy about him, never was. I’ve got to decide, though. I’ve got to make up my mind. I’m not crazy about McGovern either. I don’t have much time. I can’t keep people waiting. The fellas are voting Nixon. They expect me to vote for him too. Me vote for Nixon? My father would roll over in his grave. The fellows say they are. Maybe they’re not. Crime. I don’t feel safe. Prices up. I’ve got a hairy feeling, don’t vote for Nixon. Why am I confused? Who am I measuring McGovern against? My gut feeling. My gut feeling. My gut feeling. This hand voted for Kennedy. I mean, it’s just possible. McGovern’s straight. Maybe he can. That’s the way.
BILL MOYERS: Well, now, what’s the principle of that ad?
TONY SCHWARTZ: Surfacing this confusion that people have, giving them permission to have it, I actually read a piece in The Times that people were confused about how could they vote for Nixon with all their memories about him and the fact that they had voted for Democrats all along. This was pulling a lot of those deep strings of the tradition of voting Democrat, of the “this hand voted for Kennedy,” how could it vote for that character? It could evoke a lot of feelings that people had within them. They could feel those are the things that are going on in my mind also.
BILL MOYERS: What I see and hear deals more with the emotions than what I read.
TONY SCHWARTZ: That’s right. We are in the business of using PR in a new manner, not in the old print terms of press relations. We are using PR as people’s reactions, personal retrieval of your feelings and associations. PR — people’s recall, of their experiences. PR — planning reactions. That’s our whole new business. It’s a PR business, planning reactions.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it manipulating people to in effect tell them what they’re feeling instead of telling them what they need to know to vote?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I use the word not manipulation, I say partipulation.
BILL MOYERS: Partipulation?
TONY SCHWARTZ: You have to participate in your own manipulation. In that, you’re bringing things to your manipulation. If you don’t want to participate in it, you could turn off the commercial. You could turn it out. But there are things that get into you. And that’s the participation.
BILL MOYERS: Shouldn’t the purpose of a spot to let you know what a candidate would do about a problem, rather than how he feels about a problem?
TONY SCHWARTZ: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because if I were to bring five people in here, into this room, to tell us how to deal with the high cost of living, or how to deal with the question of inflation, or the national debt, and we had to each one of those people speak for half hour, and I said, which one do you think is right? You would have a hard job knowing who’s right. We don’t know those things. No one has had experience with the answers to our problems. Everyone has had experience with the problems. And they will tend to believe that if a man is equipped for the job, and he feels as deeply as they do about something, they will tend to feel he’ll do the right thing.
SINGERS: I’m feeling good about America, and I feel it everywhere I go. I’m feeling good about America, and I think you ought to know.
MAN: Yes, Ford has made me feel proud to be an American. I think he’s done a wonderful job for America.
SINGERS: I’m feeling good about America. I’m feeling good about me.
TONY SCHWARTZ: If you were to take a candidate and let him stand on the most crowded corner in the world and shake hands with one person every 10 seconds, he couldn’t shake hands in the whole campaign with a fraction of the people that will see one commercial where he can talk to them in their home directly and in a very modest way tell them something for 30 seconds or 60 seconds as opposed to shaking hands and not saying anything for 10 seconds.
JIMMY CARTER: I want a chance to give back to you the security and the hopes for tomorrow that inflation is stealing from you. With your help, we can do it. You can depend on it.
TONY SCHWARTZ: The campaign takes place in the living room now.
BILL MOYERS: Not on the streets.
TONY SCHWARTZ: Not on the street. And we’re not interested in public speaking. We’re interested in private speaking. I think that people know much more about candidates today than they did in the past.
BILL MOYERS: And the commercials have been able to accomplish that?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I think there are an important part of it. You know, people will say that why can’t we use the news, and the discussion shows, and the free media? You find then that the candidate loses control of his own campaign. He goes with what the interest of the news caster is. He has to have control of his campaign. If he has the proper balance of his paid media, the media he determines about himself, and isn’t that what free speech means?
BILL MOYERS: With the use of political commercials, does the best man win or the most telegenic?
TONY SCHWARTZ: I don’t think it’s either. You know, people will come to me and say, are you sure you work for the right candidate? You’re a very powerful person in this realm. And I say, that’s not a democratic question. The right candidate is not for me to decide. It’s for the voters to decide.
BILL MOYERS: You and I as voters also have to decide what we think of political spots. I’m ambivalent myself. I don’t buy the argument that they undermine democracy. In a way, they serve democracy by reaching more people in the single instant than a whistle stop campaign ever could, or a speech on the stump. When William Jennings Bryan was running for president, his speeches sometimes lasted three hours. Imagine him trying that on a television audience that has come to expect fast, fast, fast relief.
One thing to be said for political spots is that they enable candidates to choose their message on their terms. The politician is not left to the mercy of newspaper editors or television producers looking for that 10-second excerpt that fits the reporter’s script. The fact is candidates can say a lot in 30 seconds that they think a voter should know about them or their opponents.
BILL MOYERS: And I’m not worried that they’ll carry the day. No spot has the last word. We have news reports, the opposition’s campaign, other publications, and our own common sense against which to measure its claims. That’s one reason viewers have learned to take much of what they see in commercials, political or otherwise, with a grain of salt.
Even so, if political spots don’t undermine democracy, they trivialize its conversation. They reduce issues to black and white. They’re frequently vague, and they can be misleading, deliberately or unwittingly.
BILL MOYERS: That 1964 Daisy commercial, for example, was intended to make people think about the urgency of controlling nuclear weapons and to remind them of Lyndon Johnson’s prudence. It wasn’t meant to make you think Barry Goldwater wanted to blow up little children. Yet although Goldwater’s name was never mentioned, that’s how a lot of people interpreted the ad.
Furthermore, the Daisy spot is a classic example of how emotional ads in politics can be irrelevant to government. Nuclear responsibility is an issue in every election. But in 1964, the issue that should have been debated, openly and candidly, was what are we going to do about Vietnam? It haunts me all this time later that Lyndon Johnson was portrayed as the peacemaker in that campaign and Barry Goldwater the warmonger. But it was LBJ, who after his reelection, committed the country to a long, bloody war in Vietnam that eventually we lost. If my memory is correct, we never touched on Vietnam in any of the political spots in 1964.
BILL MOYERS: Political advertising tends to be an expensive and amusing sideshow to the real business of government, one more diversion in the theater of entertainment we all now live in. So I come down believing we have to keep looking for alternatives to carry on the political conversation of America — using television because it’s here to stay, but using it in a way that does justice to the ideas and serious purpose of the men and women who run, and to the responsibility of all of us who must weight what they say and act on it. I’m Bill Moyers.
WOMAN: General, both parties talk about bringing down food prices, how do we know which party to believe?
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Well, instead of asking what party will bring prices down, why not ask, what party put prices up? Then vote for the change.
JIMMY CARTER: I want a chance to give back to you the security and the hopes for tomorrow that inflation is stealing from you. With your help, we can do it. You can depend on it.
GERALD FORD: Trust is leveling with the people before the election about what you’re going to do after the election. It’s not enough for anyone to say, trust me. Trust must be earned.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country. And this is a powerful country, but I think it could be a more powerful country.
RICHARD NIXON: This is your first vote. And years from now, I just hope you can all look back and say it was one of your best votes. Thank you.
This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.