Campaign Advertisements: Historical Background

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Campaign Advertisements: Historical Background

Darrell M. West, Brown University

Hard-hitting charges filled television screens in Election 2000. An independent group from California called Shape the Debate was broadcasting an ad called "Hypocrisy" modeled on the quiz show "Jeopardy." The first contestant chose the category of political hypocrites for $200. The host read the question, "he says he supports campaign finance reform, but held an illegal fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple." Instantly, the contestant replied, "Who is Al Gore?" Additional questions flashed across the stage. "He promised never to cut Medicare expenses, but cast the deciding vote to cut Medicare by $55 billion" and "He crusades against tobacco, but grew and sold it from his very own farm." In each case, the correct answer according to the ad was "Who is Al Gore?" The spot closed by proclaiming, "Al Gore has a lot to answer for. That's 'Hypocrisy.' Bye-bye."


Ads have come a long way since their roots as printed handbills in the 19th century. Plastered on fences and trees, handbills attacked the opposition and defended the honor of the ad sponsor. For example, in 1828, according to a review by University of Pennsylvania Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, handbills distributed by Andrew Jackson’s supporters portrayed John Quincy Adams as “driving off with a horsewhip a crippled old soldier who dared to speak to him, to ask an alms.’’ A circular distributed by Adams’s forces meanwhile attacked Jackson for “ordering other executions, massacring Indians, stabbing a Samuel Jackson in the back, murdering one soldier who disobeyed his commands, and hanging three Indians.”

Early in the 20th century, radio became the medium of choice. Seizing upon the ability to communicate instantly all across the nation, candidates used the power of audio appeals to create greater intimacy with citizens. Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt were two of the earliest pioneers in using radio to build their popularity with voters.

In the 1950s, a revolution took place when the new medium of television was married to the task of persuasive advertising. Ads at this time were not very sophisticated by current standards. Political commercials relied upon footage from press conferences or testimonials from prominent citizens. Many were so-called “talking head” commercials whereby the speaker spoke straight into the camera without any interruption or colorful graphics.

The 1952 presidential campaign was the first one that featured television ads. In that race, each party ran spots taking advantage of emotions stirred by World War II. In an effort to elect General Dwight Eisenhower, GOP commercials reminded voters that “one party rule made slaves out of the German people until Hitler was conquered by Ike.’’ Not to be outdone, Democratic ads informed voters that “General Hindenburg, the professional soldier and national hero, [was] also ignorant of domestic and political affairs....The net result was his appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor.”
Over the past fifty years, different kinds of ads have gained prominence. The 1964 presidential campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater featured graphic images of mushroom clouds and nuclear war to portray Goldwater as an extremist not to be trusted with America’s future. The 1976 race saw heart-felt pleas by Jimmy Carter that he would not lie to the American people. When economic performance plummeted in the late 1970s, Republican challenger Ronald Reagan used appeals that asked whether Americans were "better off than they were four years ago." When the economy strengthened in 1984, Reagan’s peaceful spot “Morning in America” conveyed the point that prosperity had returned to America.

The 1988 presidential contest was the zenith of attack politics in the post–World War II period. Using the story of William Horton, a convicted black man who while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison brutally raped a white woman, Bush effectively portrayed Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and out of the political mainstream. The 1992 campaign of Bill Clinton derided Bush for poor economic performance and insensitivity to the plight of ordinary Americans. Reminding voters that unemployment had risen, Clinton beat Bush by 43 percent to 38 percent.

In the 21st century, the Internet is transforming political communications and allowing candidates to target ads even more carefully than before. By focusing on websites that appeal to young people, or senior citizens, or voters interested in health care, or minorities, candidates can broadcast banner ads to selected groups of people. Though in their infancy, these Internet ads promise over the long run to change the nature of the relationship between citizens and leaders. Candidates have become adept at quick response ads whereby a spot broadcast by one campaigner is matched within hours by a response from the opponent.
In addition to changes in the technology of advertising, we have seen major shifts in who runs ads. For much of the past 50 years, ads were sponsored mainly by candidates for elective office. Those who were on the ballot paid for nearly all of the commercials seen by voters around election time. But now, due to changes in campaign finance rules and court rulings, the list of those broadcasting ads has extended to political parties, interest groups, and private citizens. It is estimated that in 2000, 40 percent of the ads broadcast on television will be sponsored by an organization other than a candidate.

In some respects, this broadening in the kinds of people participating in the electoral dialogue is encouraging because it shows that more people care about the election outcome. However, since studies have revealed that group ads tend to be more negative and distorted than those messages broadcast by candidates, the rise of non-candidate ads raises a host of problems for democratic elections. Groups and individuals do not face the same type of disclosure requirements as candidates; therefore, it is possible for certain individuals or interest groups to secretly finance political communiqués without knowledge by the American public.

Advances in ad editing techniques also have raised problems in terms of deception and inaccuracy. In 1992, Pat Buchanan created problems for himself in media circles when he broadcast ads that either speeded up or slowed down the movements of President Bush in order to make him look either hyperactive or lethargic. Independent groups have run ads that electronically superimposed the image of one person next to that of someone else. These kinds of electronic manipulations are hard to detect by ordinary viewers, which makes them especially problematic from the standpoint of fair elections.
As ads become more technologically sophisticated, but remain easy to make by a broad range of political interests, an even greater burden is placed on citizens to sort out competing and sometimes deceptive claims from candidates. The old days, when printed handbills merely challenged the honor of the opponent, have given way to a wide range of constructive and unconstructive uses of television and Internet technology.

Problems that warrant monitoring in the area of campaign advertising include secretly financed ads, commercials that play to narrow groups in society, spots that are inaccurate or misleading, candidates who rely on third parties or outside organizations to deliver questionable appeals, and ads that offer little substance but much emotion to the American voter struggling to decide how to vote. These issues guarantee that ads will continue to remain a point both of interest and contention in the foreseeable future. As long as ads continue to be the largest expenditure in major campaigns, roughly 60 percent of the overall spending in presidential races, they will continue to fascinate and aggravate political observers.


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