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Modern Political Advertising in America: The Precursors, the Television, and Beyond
Modern Political Advertising in America: The Precursors, the Television, and Beyond

         Modern political advertising in America began over half a decade ago and is still used today (McDonough, 1248). The messages have reached the audiences through ever-changing media, but the concept has remained the same. “The purpose of [political] ads is to define your candidate and to define your opponents—to convey both positive and negative information and to evoke both positive and negative feelings in the viewers and prospective voters” (Holtz-Bacha, 186). However, conveying this information across America was harder to do before the 1900’s. In the election of 1896 when the democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against republican William McKinley (Sanderson), Bryan took advantage of the transcontinental railroad system. Bryan was the first presidential candidate to travel across the United States during a campaign, giving 700 “whistle-stop speeches” (McDonough 1248) in 27 states (Sanderson). This was one of the first forms of political advertising and self-promotion that encompassed the purpose of a modern political advertisement (McDonough 1248). From that time on, “nominees no longer sat at home… they toured the nation for support” (Sanderson).
         Although Bryan was defeated by McKinley, political advertising grew as a constant in American politics. American citizens wanted to have a “positive identity” (McCaffrey 3) or image of their candidate. Sloganeered signage, ribbons, and pinback buttons were some of the earliest media that was used to sell the politicians and their individual policies (McDonough 1248). Campaign buttons read “Stand Pat!” (“Theodore Roosevelt”) in the election of 1904 and “Win with Taft” (Sommers) in the election of 1908. Symbolic colors were used for ribbons at presidential rallies to “show their colors” (McDonough 1248), and slogans, such as “Four More Years of the Full Dinner Pail” (“Capital and Labor”) used in McKinley’s 1900 campaign, were sanctioned. The next major innovation in political advertising came in the 1920’s. Radios were being sold throughout the United States (White), and by 1931, “a majority of U.S. households were radio-equipped” (Craig). This provided the presidential candidates with a better medium of mass communication for their advertisements. During the early broadcasting years, advertising spots on the radio were free for politicians before nomination, but time had to be paid for if they were selected as a candidate (McDonough 1248). Debates and radio panels also broadcasted the presidential candidates into the homes of millions (McDonough 1248-49). But halfway through the 20th Century, Eisenhower made a reluctant decision that revolutionized political advertising.
         During the presidential election of 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were the presidential candidates, seeking votes from millions of Americans (McDonough 1248). With 1.5 million television sets in the United States by 1951, Eisenhower broadcasted a campaign series the following year that became known as “Eisenhower Answers America” (“The :30 Second President”). These spots, “a 20-second or 1-minute announcement on television” (“The :30 Second President”), consisted of average American people, asking Eisenhower about his proposed policies (“The :30 Second President”). For the first time in history, “no longer were candidates selected by deal-makers in smoke-filled rooms” (McDonough  1248) but by the everyday citizens of America. The following presidential election year “…Eisenhower announced, early in his campaign, his intention to run primarily on television; now it was the old-fashioned whistle-stopping that appeared ‘unseemly’ for a sitting President” (Bates 79-80).
         Despite some initial negative responses to Eisenhower’s self-promotion, such as a comparison to “selling the president like soap” (“The :30 Second Candidate”), this modern political advertising remains a key factor in a candidate’s victory today.  Political advertising’s function in America is best summarized by the following:
Advertising whose central focus is the marketing of ideas, attitudes, and concerns about public issues, including political concepts and political candidates. The essential task of political advertising is to gain the confidence of the people for their acceptance of ideas and, in the case of political campaign advertising, to influence their vote. (“Business Glossary”)
In order to be effective, though, advertisements must be able to reach large or targeted audiences. Television commercials solve this problem and allow a nearly instant response by the viewer (Lane 259). “Candidates can target the whole country by using network buying. They can even roadblock advertising by buying the same time slots on networks to try to maximize their audiences. Ads can also be targeted locally through spot buying” (Holtz-Bacha 187). When buying time for a target audience, a political advertiser can consider the time of day or type of programming on a network as well. “Time buying strategies—for example, daytime buying to gain more female viewers, or sports programs buying to gain more male viewers, or late-night buying to gain 18-to-21-year-old viewers—has long been used” (Holtz-Bacha 188). Also, from 7:00 to 10:00 at night, television audiences are the highest (McCaffrey 94). In 1956, the idea of five-minute spots was introduced. They were called “hitchhikes” (Bates 80), “free rides on somebody else’s audience” (Bates 80) that would “run between popular programs” (Bates 80) in order to reach more viewers (Bates 80). Political advertisers want as many viewers or potential voters as possible in order to influence their perceptions of a candidate and ultimately their votes. This act of reaching a targeted audience with high frequency is one of television’s major advantages that allows an advertiser to do just that (Bates 80).
         Along with providing advertisers with large and targeted audiences, television, specifically television commercials, has three other advantages. First, political advertising can be controlled according to the following (Holtz-Bacha 186):
The candidates may not be able to control what the opposition says or does, or control what the media televises or prints. However, candidates, if they are properly funded for their primary campaigns and ultimately gain the presidential nomination, can control their message and their image through paid advertising. (Holtz-Bacha 186-87).
This is especially beneficial near the end of the campaign. Advertising commercials “overwhelm television news coverage by 4 to 1 in the closing weeks of a presidential campaign” (Holtz-Bacha 187). The next advantage of television is that it can be used to persuade swing voters, especially during the last few weeks before Election Day (Holtz-Bacha 187). For those who are already decided, these political ads strengthen their support for their candidate, and for those who are undecided, “[they] get trapped” (Holtz-Bacha 187). Instead of using their effort to change the television channel, people sit through the commercials and usually learn something about the candidate (Holtz-Bacha 187). The final advantage of television is that commercials are very flexible and can be monitored (Holtz-Bacha188). In a campaign, a political candidate can change the mood in various ads to create different reactions in their audiences, and because the ads are monitored, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of them can be measured to see what works best (Holtz-Bacha 188).
         Political commercials are categorized into several specialized groups: talking-head, person-in-the-street, testimonial, documentary, and creative idea (Holtz-Bacha 193-97). Talking-head ads are defined as the following:
Talking-head ads focus on issues or substance, but most important, help create an image or feeling about the candidate. They join verbal copy (words) and vocal delivery (pitch or rate) with the visual (picture and setting) to help explain a candidate’s position on an issue (crime or defense) while also creating an image impression (leadership or likability) with the viewer. (Holtz-Baracha 193-94)
These ads are the most effective during political campaigns if they maintain a positive tone (Holtz-Baracha 194). However, the other types of ads are used as well. Person-in-the-street ads are self-explanatory. A regular person is filmed praising one of the candidates and usually condemning the opponents (Holtz-Baracha 195). Conversely, testimonial ads feature famous celebrities that endorse the policies of a candidate (Holtz-Baracha 196). Documentary ads “show the leadership accomplishments of the candidate” (Holtz-Baracha 195) and are often used to compare earlier proficient presidents with the running candidate (Holtz-Baracha 195). Lastly, creative idea advertising leaves a lasting impression. These ads are negative towards the opponent but are “the most memorable” (Holtz-Baracha 196).
         Briefly stated above, two tones in political advertising, negative and positive, exist. Political ads usually follow a pattern of starting positive, going negative, and ending negatively (Holtz-Baracha, 188). Negative ads originated from the Democratic Party as they struggled to keep up with the Republicans’ television spots (Bates 84). The first negative ad “…used film of the opponent to attack the opponent” (Bates 84-85). The following can be said of all negative political advertising, historical and new:
Campaigns try to make their candidate’s name a synonym for everything the electorate cherishes and to transform the opponent into an antonym of those treasured values. Decency versus debauchery. Loyalty versus treason. “He cares about the criminals; I care about the victims.” Corrupt political insiders against honest citizen outsiders. Tax-and-spend Democrats versus no-new-taxes Republicans. Economic stagnation versus let’s get the country moving again. (Jamieson 47)
Television allowed sound and movement in advertisements that created a more powerful message to ultimately “increase the redundancy and… the memorability of the message” (Jamieson 50). Differences in the cinematography between negative and positive ads are easily distinguished. In negative ads, “quick cuts, use of black and white, dark colors, shadowed lighting, stark contrasts, videotape, and the voice of a seemingly ‘neutral’ announcer, and ominous music are… associated with ‘oppositional’ production spots” (Jamieson 51) that invoke the emotion of fear (Brader 6), whereas a “soft focus, long shots, slow motion, color, use of film, the voice of a reassuring announcer, and lyrical or patriotic music are the grammar of the self-promotional biographical spot” (Jamieson 50) or documentary ad, which conveys positivity (Holtz-Baracha 196) by including hope and enthusiasm (Brader 5). This kind of ad became known as soft-sell advertising, which depended on “how the viewer felt about what he or she was seeing and hearing” (Bates 114), in contrast to hard-sell advertising, which used repetition as its main technique to get the audience to act (Bates 114). Soft-sell has generally worked better because it reaches “the core of being” (Bates 115) within a person. These emotional appeals of fear and hope and enthusiasm “influence the political behavior of viewers” (Brader 62) and ultimately get the viewers to respond with their votes. Good negative ads and good positive ads must be used together to create an effective political campaign (Holtz-Baracha 203).
         In order to be able to create any type of ad, politicians have to have money. In the election of 1992 between Clinton, Bush, and Perot, a record-setting $133 million was spent on television advertising, only a portion of the money raised (Holtz-Baracha 189). Spending begins before a party nomination and continues through a nominee’s candidacy if he or she is chosen (Holtz-Baracha, 190). Although advertising dollars are spent mostly on television ads (Lane 257), “the most powerful partner for the politician” (McCaffrey 96), presidential candidates are now turning to new media with the rest of their fundraised money that is not spent on television ads. Spending for political Web ads were projected to reach around $42.5 million, or 5%, of all presidential campaign earnings in the 2008 election between Obama and McCain  (Kaye). Both Barack Obama and John McCain maintained websites on the Internet, and YouTube and networking sites, such as MySpace and FaceBook, were used as advertising outlets to reach voters (Schifferes). Political commercials on television prompted 51% of a survey group to go online and view these websites (Barret). Nearly half of that same group, 42%, learned about a specific political candidate online first (Barret). Also, some unsuccessful spending, mainly by McCain, went toward robo calls, “automated telephone calls that are negative attacks on the other candidate” (Gibson). Despite the uses of new and old media in the most recent election, television advertising still remains the most expensive of political spending, but the Internet is not far behind.
         In future elections, Americans can look forward to more innovations in the world of modern political advertising. Perhaps political Web advertising will become the main format of advertising for a candidate’s campaign, or maybe a new form of mass communication will be developed and allow an advertiser to experiment with it as an ad medium. Although the future innovations of modern political advertising cannot quite be predicted, an advertiser can take this information and use it to understand how political advertising developed and how it reached its modern form. From the precursors, to the television, and beyond, modern political advertising has only just begun.

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