Hitting the Spot:
How TV Advertising Remade American Politics

By Kathryn Cramer Brownell

This essay has been published in conjunction with The Living Room Candidate, an online project of Museum of the Moving Image that examines Presidential Campaign Commercials from 1952 to 2020.

So far, the 2020 presidential election has been unconventional. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both the Democratic and Republican parties have held virtual conventions. Plans to host campaign rallies and canvass neighborhoods have raised public health concerns, pushing both parties to increase attention to how virtual events and digital communication can help raise money and support for their candidate. But one thing remains the same: campaign war chests will be spent on political advertising. With limited in-person contact, media messaging is at more of a premium than ever. In fact, both parties are more prepared for today’s advertising landscape because of the shifts in party organization and campaign strategy that began almost seventy years ago when television burst onto the scene. The “air wars” may have expanded beyond traditional television into digital media today, but tactics are still being utilized that have long been a staple in electoral politics.

In 1952, political advertising was a blip on the radar of the major parties. Campaign strategy centered on party organization, and for two decades the Democratic Party had dominated national politics by working with labor unions and local party bosses to bring voters to the polls. Television’s dramatic growth over the previous four years, however, offered a chance to rethink electoral strategy. Only 2.9 percent of families owned television sets in 1948; four years later, Americans had bought over 52 million of them. Several prominent Republicans with experience in advertising—the very industry that crafted early television programming—saw this technological innovation as key to winning back the White House. But first, they had to convince the presidential nominee that year, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to make television a priority.

The internationally famous general was an unlikely but ideal candidate for television. Eisenhower’s military career had made him a highly respected household name, and both parties had recruited him as their nominee. Voters trusted Eisenhower as a person, and this opened new opportunities for the Republican Party to rebrand itself and overcome the regional factions that had doomed its presidential candidates in the past. Television presented an opportunity not just to rethink political communication but also to reimagine party organization and coalitions.

Rosser Reeves, a star ad executive at the Ted Bates Agency, took the lead in convincing Eisenhower of the untapped potential of television. Reeves had made a name for himself by crafting the advertising campaigns for household items like Rolaids, M&Ms, and BIC pens. He wanted to bring catchy phrases—like M&Ms’ “melt in your mouth, not in your hands” slogan—to politics. On August 7, 1952, he had a meeting with Eisenhower in which he pitched the idea of making television central to the campaign, calling the new medium the “essence of democracy” for how it could inform and “stimulate voters to go to the polls and vote for the candidate.” Ike went along with the idea, and the first presidential television advertising spot campaign was born.

Reeves developed a series of ads—“Eisenhower Answers America”—that would address the three issues which the pollster George Gallop had identified as most important to voters: the war in Korea, government corruption, and communism. The advertisements showed Ike answering individual questions from “ordinary” Americans. But it was all a carefully scripted production designed to connect to viewers. Eisenhower never even met the individuals featured in the advertisements with him. In a television studio, Reeves transformed Ike into a celebrity, bringing in lights, makeup, and even convincing the former general to take off his glasses. The short spots honed in on pocketbook issues, reminding Americans of how ineffective leadership had hurt family finances across the country.

“How would you clean up the mess in Washington,” a couple asks Eisenhower. In a dark suit that contrasted sharply with the well-lit background, Ike replies, “My answer: it’s not a one-agency mess or even a one-department mess, it’s a top-to-bottom mess. And I promise we will clean it up from the bottom.”

In another line, he refutes the Democratic slogan “You’ve never had it so good,” by talking about national debt, high prices, and taxes that “break our backs.” In another he argues for the need to cut costs and taxes, before ending with the takeaway line: “It’s time for a change.”

In total, Eisenhower filmed 40 spots—all between 20 and 60 seconds—which aired in 40 states. The production process was draining and frustrating for Eisenhower. When one reporter expressed concern about a glare from Eisenhower’s bald head on camera, Ike snapped, “Why don’t you just get an actor?” In the end, however, the GOP nominee listened to the Madison Avenue experts and other media advisors like actor Robert Montgomery, even as he lamented, “To think that an old soldier should come to this.”

The innovative nature of these spots is especially clear when compared to the Democratic Party’s approach that year. With Adlai Stevenson as its nominee, the party followed its traditional way of organizing, relying on party machinery across the country to deliver voters for the Illinois governor. When it came to the media, he built on the strategy that Franklin Roosevelt had made a staple of party politics: radio. Roosevelt’s intimate fireside chats and groundbreaking radio spot advertisements crafted in collaboration with Hollywood entertainers in 1944 had personalized the presidency and elevated the importance of radio in the Democratic Party. Following this tradition, the Stevenson campaign produced glorified radio advertisements for the television screen.

Consider, for example, the “Bob and Ike” spot. Designed to associate Eisenhower with Robert Taft, his challenger for the GOP nomination and a representative of the conservative wing of the party, the advertisement simply used two hearts labeled “Bob” and “Ike” to make this statement. It lacked engaging visuals and the catchy sloganeering of the “Ike for President” ad. It also eschewed the cohesive messaging and personal connection offered by the “Eisenhower Answers America” spot series.

Furthermore, Adlai Stevenson did not appear in these advertisements. Instead, he saved his television appearances for 30-minute speeches, which aired at night when the campaign could afford longer periods of time. While short Eisenhower spots aired during primetime to millions of viewers, Stevenson’s speech droned on longer during a “period when political viewing was at a low ebb,” noted one study on the influence of television that year.

Eisenhower’s advertising campaign provides insights into a party adapting its messaging and organization to an era of new technology. Those with television skills gained authority in the party, ultimately ingraining the importance of the medium into party operations. As one political scientist noted in 1956, a new style of party boss had emerged: the publicity consultant. With experience in advertising rather than traditional party politics, these individuals gave presidential hopefuls advice on how to manipulate the television screen to gain political advantage, transforming ideas of the very skills needed to succeed in politics. They also advocated a new way of engaging citizens as media consumers first, voters second. With more registered Democrats across the country, Eisenhower’s campaign team wanted to activate new voters through television by connecting them to Ike’s personality. And so, through political advertising, the GOP became the party of Ike.

While “I like Ike” became a simplistic slogan for Eisenhower’s presidency and has captured popular memory of the 1950s, it was an advertisement, crafted by professionals and designed to skirt a discussion of complicated issues like anti-communism, racism, and economic inequality that shaped the reality of American life. Eisenhower’s successful presidential campaigns inspired other political hopefuls across the political spectrum to prioritize media messaging, and the highly paid professionals designing them, in electoral politics. The expansion of this industry and its place in American political life is visible in the increasing numbers and growing sophistication of the advertisements archived in the Living Room Candidate, an online exhibition by Museum of the Moving Image, which features ads from every presidential campaign since 1952. Political advertising has now become a billion-dollar industry with candidates in local, state, and national elections all relying on print, television, and digital media to spread their message and to appeal to voters as media consumers.

Eisenhower’s presidency propelled a shift toward a more candidate-centered campaign process, in which personality mattered more than party affiliation or loyalty. These shifts in electoral politics meant that John F. Kennedy could appeal to voters as “Jack Kennedy fans” and defeat the most powerful Democrat in the country, Lyndon Johnson, for the presidential nomination in 1960. It meant that Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood star, could use his acting skills to win the California governorship and then the presidency. And more recently, it has meant that a former reality television star could win the presidency, and come to dominate the very party that had at one point attempted to stop his candidacy in 2016.

The media and political landscape in 2020 are radically different from 1952. Cable television, partisan websites and blogs, and social media have fractured the national viewing audience that presidential contenders once had. And yet, political advertising remains a campaign priority, and studying the messages these ads convey may hold the key to navigating the chaos of the 2020 campaign. In our polarized age, such ads may not unify the country around one candidate or the other, but they can continue to illuminate candidates’ values and priorities.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell is associate professor of history and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life and Consulting Curator for The Living Room Candidate.



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Image at top [public domain] courtesy of Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.