Twentieth Century America, witnessed the rise of electronic television technologies that brought show business entertainment to politics. Television spawned a new generation of image politics that transformed political messages, and subsequently American politics.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman suggests that, “Typography once dictated the style of conducting politics … [but] television now takes command.” Television brought political speakers to an intimate distance from citizens, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman observed in The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shaped the Political World. “Television made political speech more personal, more self-disclosive, and more conversational in style.”
Postman asserts that the discourse on television is empty of ideological content and historical context. There is no contextual basis created for remembering – no theory, vision or metaphor, because television creates a “continuous, incoherent present” in which history does not exist.
Political television’s landmark year was 1952 when advertising agencies began to play a significant role in campaigning. The presidential election campaigns of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson took notice of the fact that 45% of the nation’s household had televisions, convincing them to hire advertising agencies to create the first political commercials for a presidential campaign to reach a national audience of voters, notes Larry Sabato in The Rise of Political Consultants.
Agencies housed their own media consultants who advised their candidate on how to create messages best suited for the television commercial format.
Pioneer media specialist Ben Duffy of the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (BBDO) created Dwight Eisenhower’s successful television campaign advertising and knew how best to exploit a candidate’s image through television media, as did Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency, who assisted in Eisenhower’s media campaign.
The agencies produced television spots and bought airtime.
Consultation with pollster George Gallup developed a television commercial campaign centered on the themes: corruption and communism, the economy, and the Korean War. Under the auspices of the advertising agencies, Eisenhower’s campaign produced forty-nine spots for television that were shot on film and intercut with the grandfatherly image of General Eisenhower answering questions of voters concerns. (The campaign produced twenty-nine spots for radio). These ads were either 20-second or 60-second long and designed to play in key swing counties of the country.
The commercials produced during this early period of media specialists were “simplistic and technically very primitive by comparison with modern fare,” points out Sabato. But media politics was off and running. The cost estimate for Eisenhower’s media blitz was close to $1.5 million.
Criticism to the television campaign came from George Ball, a staffer for Adlai Stevenson, who charged that Republican ad managers “conceived not an election campaign in the usual sense, but a super colossal, multimillion dollar production designed to sell an inadequate ticket to the American people in precisely the way they sell soap… They guarantee their candidates to be 99 44/100 percent pure; whether or not they will float remains to be seen.”
The importance of targeting audiences through strategic purchase of radio and television airtime cannot be over-emphasized as demonstrated by the contrast in media buy by the Democratic and Republican ad agencies. The Joseph Katz Agency of Baltimore handled Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s failed presidential bid but wrongly advised Stevenson to air his commercials between the 10:30 PM and 11:00 PM nighttime slot. Stevenson’s campaign saved $360,000, but his spots were seen by a much smaller audience than those who saw Eisenhower’s spots that aired during the more watched early evening television programming. Media buying would eventually evolve into a specialist role. After his loss, Jamieson wrote, Adlai Stevenson, who would be the last presidential candidate to base his campaign on the strength of speeches, revealed his feelings about television media that echoed Neil Postman. “The people might be better served if a party purchased a half hour of radio and TV silence during which the audience would be asked to think quietly for themselves.”
Television helped to usher in the modern era of political campaigning and consulting. The influence of visual media on campaigning has been to shift the determination of a candidate’s worth from substance – positions on issues, to how well s/he performs on television. The personalization of candidates saw an increase among voters to judge them based on personality and character. Postman argues the biases of television shape our understanding of politics as seen on television. The 1960 presidential election debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exemplifies this paradigm. Radio listeners and television viewers had contrasting impressions of how well each candidate fared. Political consultant, Stuart Spencer who heard the debate on his car radio said, “I’m listening to this thing and I thought, Nixon won the debate, he did fine. I look at the papers and I wondered who the hell I was listening to. Then I saw the TV tapes and [Nixon] looked like hell.” Since each medium has its own stylistic requirements and communicative facilities that affect viewer’s perceptions, radio listeners and television viewers each received different messages.
Kennedy’s image on television was better received than Nixon’s and those who watched the debates felt that Kennedy had won.
Radio listeners were convinced that Nixon, the seasoned orator, came through as the stronger candidate and therefore won the debate.
On television, Postman relates, a candidate’s “style is important … how they looked, fixed their gaze, smiled, and delivered one-liners,” whereas on radio, oratory and command of language is important. Kennedy credited his successful campaign run to television, Sabato notes. He said after the campaign that, “It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
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