David Schwartz is the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image and curator of The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2008, an online exhibition featuring more than 300 television commercials dating back to 1952, when the first campaign ads appeared on TV. We caught up with Schwartz to learn more about the history and art of the campaign ad.
Lauren Feeney: Was there ever a “good old days” of campaign advertising? A time when they were fair, honest and substantive?
David Schwartz: From the very beginning, campaign ads were not substantive. The first televised campaign ads were the Eisenhower Answers America ads, which were 20 seconds long. They identified key issues and made very simple statements. The message was: Washington’s a mess, it’s filled with corruption, we’re stuck in the war in Korea, prices are too high, and Eisenhower is the outsider who’s going to come in and fix that. The ads repeated those points over and over again. They weren’t filled with lies, I guess, but they were quite simplistic.
If you look at some of the Kennedy-Nixon ads from 1960, there is a fair amount of substance in them compared to what you see today. There’s one Kennedy ad about religion where he outlines his feeling about whether he can be an effective president and a Catholic, and it actually goes on for almost two minutes and shows a real train of thought and an argument being made. You don’t really see that today. You tend to see 30-second ads with sound bites and quickly edited images.
Feeney: What were some of the strategies used in those early ads?
Schwartz: The whole idea of charisma became important very early on. Eisenhower really sold his personality. His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, wouldn’t even appear in ads in 1952; he did finally in 1956, but he was very stiff and formal. Eisenhower was much more charismatic and telegenic.
Then there’s this idea of the outsider — the person who’s going to come in and clean up Washington. So Eisenhower was the man from Abilene; Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from the South. Bill Clinton was the man from Hope, Arkansas.
The incumbent can always use the trappings of the presidency. Nixon did that very effectively in 1972, with ads showing him in the White House. So that’s an advantage that the reelection campaign has — they have all the imagery of the president being the president.
Feeney: Who are the “mad men” behind some of your favorite campaign ads?
Schwartz: The first hero of campaign ads is Rosser Reeves, who was one of the top Madison Avenue guys in 1952 and supposedly an inspiration for the Don Draper character on the show Mad Men. He was famous for the M&M “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” campaign. He managed the Eisenhower Answers America ads — short ads focusing on key issues, that was his strategy. Nobody questions whether a candidate should do campaign ads anymore, but at the time it was a bold choice. Stevenson was buying half-hour blocks of time to do speeches, but nobody actually wanted to listen to that.
The ad man who really played a key role in changing the style of ads was Tony Schwartz, who did the 1964 ads for Lyndon Johnson. That was actually the closest to a Mad Men-style agency — Doyle Dane Bernbach it was called. Before they came along, ads were very straightforward — basically, you would take your candidate and put him in front of a camera and have him talk directly to the audience through the screen. But in the early ’60s TV was starting to get a bad reputation — you had that famous speech about the vast wasteland by Newton Minow — and there was a feeling that you had to be a bit more clever and sophisticated to reach viewers.
The classic example is the Daisy ad from 1964, where there’s actually no voiceover; no clear, direct statement. You have a girl picking petals off a flower in one shot, and you’re hearing the girl counting the petals as she plucks them off, and then you cut to a nuclear countdown and explosion. The ad works with the viewer’s imagination; you fill in the blanks and figure out that the ad is implying that Goldwater is dangerous and could start a nuclear war. There were a few reasons it was so effective. It only aired once as a paid ad, but it was so extreme that it became a news story. We’ve seen that a lot: the Swift Boat ads in 2004, the Willie Horton ad — were amplified by the news. Of course, the other reason the Daisy ad was effective was it had a kernel of truth to it. Goldwater actually said at the convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and he was unabashedly extreme; he had even talked about possibly using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. But mostly it was effective because it involved the viewer. The viewer had to piece it together and make the connection.
[For more on ‘Daisy’, check out Robert Mann’s Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds]
Then of course you have the Reagan Morning in America ads that were done by Hal Riney. Those are just great positive ads that take a subtle swipe at Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter, but they’re very uplifting and positive; beautifully done.
There was a period when you had more creative people from the world of advertising; now you have more involvement from political consultants, so the ads aren’t as imaginative or strong on cinematic terms. What we’re doing with our website is almost treating these commercials like they’re short films, looking at how they use cinematic devices. You find these ads really reflect the time periods when they were made.
Feeney: What are some devices that were used effectively in more recent campaign ads?
Schwartz: One device is just the use of real people. The most effective ads that I saw in 2004 for John Kerry — he didn’t have too many good ads, but the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris did these ads where he interviewed Republicans talking about why they were going to vote Democrat that year. Those were strong because they were effectively using real people.
Another technique that’s really strong is the backfire ad, where you actually find footage of a candidate saying something and then use it to make him look bad. One of the most famous examples is the 1988 ad showing Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank and looking kind of ridiculous. That was a staged photo opportunity for the Dukakis campaign — Dukakis’s people invited the press to come and film him while he was riding a tank. The Bush campaign took that footage and used it against him.
Feeney: How has the legal landscape related to campaign advertising changed through time, and how has that affected the quality of ads?
Schwartz: The McCain-Feingold law was important because after that the candidates had to actually put their names on the ads, and say, “I’m so-and-so, and I approve this message.” But the truth is that there hasn’t been a lot of restriction on ads, and even with McCain-Feingold, you still had very negative ads, then you’d just have this happy tagline at the end. Now, with Citizens United, there’s just so much spending on advertising, and so much negative advertising out there, it’s a little scary to think about what we’re in for.