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Televising Politics

Despite this uneven growth, paid professionals were occupying a larger role in the conduct of political campaigns. In the 1950s, television provided another avenue for paid political work. In 1956, according to Alexander Heard, television surpassed radio in overall campaign spend- ing.40 Between 1952 and 1956, in fact, Heard found that total spending on television in political campaigns increased from $2.9 to $6.5 million, more than twice what was spent on radio that year. This growth is even more remarkable when compared with the trend in overall campaign spending during the same four-year period. Whereas spending on television increased by 80 percent in real terms, overall campaign costs actually declined by 10 percent between Eisenhower’s two elections.41

As was the case with radio, the political use of television created new opportunities for those able to sell products and services over the airwaves. In particular, the growing reliance on political spots gave a more prominent role to advertising agencies, especially in the conduct of presidential campaigns. Stanley Kelley described this process in detail in his account of the 1952 Eisenhower campaign. Under the guidance of Robert Humphreys, public relations director for the Republican National Committee, the Eisenhower campaign made television the centerpiece of its communication strategy. As Humphreys put it in a strategy memo written in August 1952, “TV offers the best, if the most expensive medium to carry the personalities of the candidates to the firesides of America.”42 In particular, Humphreys believed television was the best way to reach the “stay-at-home” voter who, if mobilized, could turn the tide for the GOP! In addition to covering the candidates as they traveled across the country, Humphreys advocated “informal, intimate television productions addressed directly to the individual American and his family” using “the best directional and technical facilities ... to achieve maximum utilization of the assets” of the Republican ticket.43 Humphreys placed special emphasis on televised “spots” during the closing days of the campaign.

To that end, Humphreys secured the services of three prominent firms to handle the campaign’s television needs: the Kudner Agency; Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBD&O); and Ted Bates and Company. As Kelley described it, “The Republicans bought political experience as well as advertising skills.”44 Several of these firms boasted veteran campaigners among their ranks; BBD&O, in particular, helped create political television on behalf of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 and had worked on the Senate races of Republicans Robert A. Taft and John Foster Dulles.45 In 1952, BBD&O’s work for Eisenhower included time buying, outreach to local media, and ad production. The Kudner Agency provided a number of television advance men to cover rallies and produce studio shows as Eisenhower and Nixon toured the country.46 Meanwhile, the creation of a series of spot advertisements was the work of Rosser Reeves, a partner in Ted Bates and Company. It was Reeves who argued that spot advertisements would be more effective than a lengthy speech at garnering voters’ attention and therefore would better serve Eisenhower in the closing weeks of the campaign.47

Experts in public opinion and audience measurement also figured prominently in campaign decisions about television strategy. For example, George Gallup’s polling firm tested several possible campaign themes to gauge which ones resonated with the public. Using the results, Reeves produced a series of now-famous television spots in which Eisenhower criticized the Democratic record on taxes, inflation, and the war in Korea.48 In addition, the Nielson Marketing Service furnished the campaign with an extensive report in October 1952 that included detailed analysis of key television markets in order to assess when and where campaign spots should be aired. As Nielson explained in its report, “The planning and execution of a comprehensive

Radio-TV campaign is a task of great complexity, requiring the combined experience, facilities and services of an advertising agency, a program producer ... and an audience research organization.”49 In other words, the political use of television required professionals who could determine the efficient use of campaign resources.

For their part, Democrats also made use of television in 1952, with the Baltimore-based advertising firm Joseph Katz and Company handling most of the duties. Although overall television spending by the two major candidates was similar, there were some notable differences between how Stevenson and the Democrats approached the task compared with his Republican competitors. Rather than focus on spots, the Stevenson campaign invested heavily in half-hour television programs. To save money, the Democrats bought airtime months in advance (to avoid expensive fees networks charged to preempt already filmed programs) and purchased cheaper, late-evening slots, hoping viewers would continue to watch political programming after their shows ended at ten o’clock. As Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates put it sarcastically, the Democratic television strategy was “ideally suited to the radio age.”50 Audience numbers did not materialize as hoped, nor did the intellectual Stevenson make for engaging television.51

Democratic miscues signaled differences in how each party approached the political use of television.52 The Republican emphasis on spots permitted a much more strategic use of the new medium and the ability to target specific audiences in areas of the country thought to be receptive to the Republican message. When Rosser Reeves presented his plan for spot advertisements to the Eisenhower campaign, it included a market analysis that identified forty-nine counties in twelve states Reeves believed could tip the balance of the election.53 Spot ads saturated cities like New York in the hope that Eisenhower could cut into urban Democratic support and magnify the Republican advantage in rural and suburban areas.54 By contrast, the Democrats relied on nationally televised broadcasts that did not make use of campaign resources in a targeted or strategic way. This difference may reflect the different roles advertising firms played in the respective campaigns. Whereas firms like BBD&O or Ted Bates enjoyed a degree of control over various elements of Republican television strategy, from ad production to placement, Democratic advertising firms like Katz and Company were mostly “limited to purely technical functions,” prompting Stanley Kelley to conclude, “There is little evidence that the Democratic publicity professionals exercised important influence on these strategy decisions made by Stevenson and his principal advisors.”55

As election postmortems highlighted Eisenhower’s use of television, critics lamented the creeping political influence of advertising and public relations. One trade publication placed the number of admen working on both presidential campaigns at well over a hundred.56 The Wall Street Journal reported that “a private group of public relations men, former businessmen, and statistical experts” who helped guide Republican campaign strategy in November was hoping to move its operation into the White House. Working under the name Research Associates, the team offered the new president “scientific analysis of public opinion,” so that the administration could “influence the public mind.” The Journal dubbed Eisenhower’s team, with its frequent televised press conferences and planned communication strategies, “the most-public-relations-conscious-administration in history.”57 Others studied the new president and wondered, “Can government be merchandised?”58 As the salesmanship of the campaign carried over to the White House, it appeared “as though, having created ... the TV character Likeable Ike, his sponsors found it expedient to continue the installments of his adventures.”59 Popular culture took notice of these political developments as well. The comedic novel The Golden Kazoo (1956) portrayed the presidential contest of the future as a battle between Madison Avenue advertising firms. Media manipulation took a darker, more dramatic turn in Elia Kazan’s film A Face in the Crowd (1957), in which Andy Griffith plays an accidental celebrity who parlays his success as a television personality and pitchman to muster public support on behalf of a presidential candidate.60

The fear that advertising debased the democratic process is a familiar trope in American politics. Theodore Roosevelt observed how Mark Hanna “advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine.”61 Half a century later, Adlai Stevenson complained that the attempt to “merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity.”62 What changed in the interim, apart from the medium, was the increasing number and prominence of paid experts “who trade in the coin of politics.”63 To scholars such as Kelley and Heard, this reflected the increasing reliance on mass communications to turn out the vote. Even if “the public relations man has replaced the political boss as an object of opprobrium,” Heard noted soberly, “whether rated good or bad, [he] ... fills a functional need in political operations.”64 In fact, Heard observed, these “specialists in persuasion” increasingly occupied “a place among the elite corps of American society.”65 Kelley concurred: “As those who aim at control of government come to regard mass persuasion as their central problem, then the specialist in mass persuasion will rise correspondingly in influence. ... The public relations man is both a beneficiary of this change and a kind of signal that it is taking place.”66

Yet a purely functional analysis that sees the rise of professional advice as following directly from the requirements of mass media obscures the salesmanship that accompanied these changes in political technique. As Heard explained, “Public relations has become a label of convenience covering any kind of freewheeling political activity” as those “with a bent for politics” used the professional moniker as “a vocational base from which to sell their political services.”67 In fact, the political use of television spread widely without much hard evidence that it was effective. In 1955, future Nobel laureate Herbert Simon published one of the first studies on the electoral effects of television. Along with a coauthor, Simon compared voting behavior in 1952 in several Iowa counties, some with access to television and some without. After analyzing data on turnout and the share of the Republican vote, Simon found virtually no difference between the counties with television and those where the new medium had yet to penetrate.68

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