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Low Blows and High Rhetoric

Political Ads on Television

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, July/August 1999 | Volume 20, Number 4

The television screen fills with the image of a little girl picking off and counting the petals of a daisy. In the background another voice counts down . "Ten. . . nine . . . eight. . ." As the camera moves in closer and closer on the girl’s face, an atomic bomb explodes and we see a reflection of a mushroom cloud in the child’s eyes.

We hear Lyndon Johnson’s somber voice declaring, “These are the stakes. To have a world in which all of God’s children can live or go into the darkness. We must either love each other or die. Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The “Daisy Girl” commercial from the 1964 presidential campaign is one of thousands being preserved with NEH support, in the Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma. “The importance of preserving these materials for future study cannot be overestimated, as these tapes and films serve as landmarks in the visual history of our political system,” says Lynda Kaid, director of university’s Political Communication Center.

The “Daisy Girl” remains one of the most controversial political ads in history. Although the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater, is never mentioned by name, the implication that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons caused such an uproar that the commercial was shown only once. “Both Republicans and Democrats requested the ad’s withdrawal,” says Kaid. “It was considered a low blow because of its use of a child and its emotional tone.”

The commercial did, however, set a tone for the campaign. Goldwater himself never directly responded, but other Republicans did, including President Dwight Eisenhower and then-actor Ronald Reagan.

“Johnson continued to use a number of these kinds of spots, capitalizing on the fear technique, which struck a responsive chord in voters,” says Kaid, who studies the role of mass communication in the political system. “What the ad clearly does is demonstrate the power of television, the visual impact it has to make an emotional argument, and the effectiveness of the format in political campaigns.”

In addition to the “Daisy Girl”, the Political Commercial Archive houses a treasure trove of political commercials. Containing more than 55,000 film, audio, and videotape recordings of commercials aired between 1936 and the present, the archive has been called the “Louvre and the Fort Knox of political commercials.” Over 65 percent of the total holdings, and over 85 percent of the film holdings, are not available anywhere else.

The commercials range from the emotional to the outrageous. There are candidates’ whose noses, like Pinocchio's when he lied, get larger and larger as they speak. A cow talks about a candidate’s stand on farm issues, and a puppet and a fish discuss a candidate’s accomplishments in cleaning up pollution.

The basis of the original collection is the Julian P. Kantor Political Commercial Archive, which the University of Oklahoma acquired in 1985. Kantor began collecting political spots as a hobby in 1956 and had amassed 25,000 items, which he stored in his home.

Since receiving the archive, the Center has sought additions from current and past political campaigns and has more than doubled the collection. It includes materials not available at some presidential libraries.

The collection reflects television’s evolution. Commercials started out on 16mm film and moved to 2" reel-to-reel video in the 1960s and 1970s, to 1" video in the 1980s and then to today’s digital 3/4" cassettes.

Kaid, project codirector Kathleen Haynes, and a team of experts have cleaned, repaired, and rewound film footage. The film is now kept in special film cans to be housed in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage areas. Kaid and Haynes have also stored more than ten thousand 1" and 2" video reel items in vented, polyethylene bags.

Kaid views the archive as a major resource for scholars in many disciplines, including history, literature, political science, and women’s studies. “The archive is a visual history of our democracy,” says Kaid. “If this aspect of democratic history is not preserved, scholars will not be able to study our political process with the richness they deserve. Our goal is to preserve all of the materials for historical purposes and to make the materials available to scholars for study and analysis.”

From the first, television proved it could be a major vehicle for getting messages to voters. “During the past five decades, television’s role in the political system has increased so dramatically that it is now the dominant form of communication in the political system,” notes Kaid.

“The ads themselves have become the political discourse. Often the commercials, instead of the candidates debate each other.”

Candidates spent more than $80 million for television and radio time in the 1988 presidential campaign, $120 million in 1992 when there were three candidates, and $200 million in 1996 when there were again three candidates. State races spent millions more, with an 50 to 75 percent going for radio and television.

“Television commercials have become so important to the political process that they actually make up a substantial amount of the content used by other media in discussing political campaigns,” says Kaid. “Throughout campaigns, local and network television news shows air and analyze commercials. Network campaign coverage in 1988 included more stories and use of political commercials than had been used in the 1972 through 1984 campaigns combined.”

Today, technology has advanced to the point where a candidate can turn out a polished television commercial within twenty-four hours, giving him or her the opportunity to counter an opponent’s attacks or address any sudden issue.

In the beginning, however, when commercials were produced on 16mm film, advertising techniques were less sophisticated. Most of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign commercials showed him in footage from World War II or simply answering questions from citizens. The question-and-answer format was not presented as a citizens’ forum and did not show Eisenhower among a group of voters. It showed one shot of a citizen asking a question, followed by a shot of Eisenhower answering the question. In fact, Eisenhower’s sequences were filmed first, with the citizens edited in later. The political spot of the year was made by Walt Disney Studios?the only television campaign commercial Disney ever created?showing an animated Uncle Sam introducing the campaign slogan, “I like Ike.”

With the 1960 campaign, candidates used commercial time more directly. “Although some ads were highlighted by a jingle repeating the name Kennedy over and over again?remember in 1960

Kennedy wasn’t the household name it is today?more typical commercials featured Kennedy sitting at a desk speaking directly into the camera addressing specific issues, mostly domestic ones,” says Kaid. Republican candidate Richard Nixon stressed foreign policy and was the first candidate to focus attention on his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge. “Nixon obviously felt foreign policy was his strength and that Lodge added to it.”

By the 1968 presidential campaign Nixon was discussing the issues through still photographs and a voiceover, without actually being on camera. “He was burned by the debates with Kennedy in the 1960 election, believing he did not come across well on camera,” says Kaid. He would be followed in the eighties by an incomparable candidate before the cameras, Ronald Reagan. “He had the ability to talk directly to people,” says Kaid.

With Reagan's departure after two terms in the White House, the 1988 race was less seamless. There were both rough and ridiculous moments between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, and the ads reflected them, particularly three of the Republican commercials. One capitalized on a Dukakis campaign stop, showing him driving a tank and looking slightly ridiculous in an oversized helmet. The second and third attacked a prisoner furlough program instituted by Dukakis as governor of Massachusetts, one showing prisoners spinning in and out a revolving door, and the other melding images of Dukakis and convicted rapist Willie Horton.

“‘The revolving door’ commercial was the most effective,” says Kaid. Filmed in black and white, the commercial conveys a somber, stark tone. “Academic research shows that voters react to negative ads, that they are effective,” says Kaid. As for the Willie Horton ad, the Bush campaign disavowed it, saying it had been produced independently.

One of the other pieces of historical information from the ads is the preception of the running mates. In 1984, after Democrat Walter Mondale created headlines by endorsing a woman as his running mate--the first in a major party--the ground apparently shifted. Geraldine Ferraro is seldom on view in the Democratic ads. “Ferraro is seen only occasionally and she is certainly not the focus,” says Kaid. He adds that what is striking about the early commercials is the absence of women altogether, with occasional glimpses of candidates’ wives.

A piece of the memorabilia is a 1960 appearance by Jacqueline Kennedy speaking to the viewers in Spanish. “There is nothing visually interesting about the spot, but it is interesting to note that the campaign was obviously trying to appeal to Spanish-speaking voters,” says Kaid.

With women candidates appearing in greater numbers in the 1980s, their commercials also grew greater in number. “The early ads by women candidates were stilted and straightforward and did not use sophisticated techniques,” says Kaid. They eventually developed a style of their own, talking about their families and events in their own lives. “It was their way of establishing a rapport with the voters,” says Kaid.

In her 1992 campaign for the Senate, Dianne Feinstein of California played it both ways to portray herself as a candidate with both a soft and a tough side. The family ads showed her cradling her granddaughter in her arms and talking about making the world better for children; the others showed her wearing a hardhat at a construction site, or talking with dockworkers.

As more women became office holders, their paths followed that of men in other ways, Kaid says. “By the 1990s, as women candidates were in re-election races, they, too, used negative campaign ads.”

The archive contains materials from all the presidential elections since 1950, from eleven hundred races for governor and lieutenant governor, from nearly twenty-five hundred U.S. Senate and House races, and from uncounted thousands of statewide, local, and district elections. It continues to grow.

The availability of cable television has made it possible for more local candidates to buy time on television. “We have examples down to school board elections and judges and mayoral races,” says Kaid. “It all represents an important part of the democratic system of government. Television is simply the best way to get a message out to people.”

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Political Commercial Archive received $183,876 in NEH funding to preserve its holdings.