July 27, 2016

The negative campaign

There's a section in The Image Empire, volume three of Erik Barnouw’s seminal History of Broadcasting in the United States, that should be of interest to anyone with an opinion on negative advertising in politics.

The negative ad, of course, is nothing new. During the election of 1884, to give just one example, Grover Cleveland was rumored to have been the father an illegitimate child. Hence the campaign chant, “Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?” (See above)  Multiply this by a thousand, and you get the idea of an American political scene that has always been rough and tumble.*

*I've mentioned this before, but one of the great lines from the play (and movie) 1776 comes when Stephen Hopkins says to his friend Ben Franklin, "I want y'to see some cards I've gon 'n' had printed up that ought t'save everybody here a whole lot of time 'n' effort, considering the epidemic of bad disposition that's been going around lately. "Dear sir: You are without any doubt a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel, and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned, no good son-of-a-bitch" - and y'sign y'r name. What do y'think?" To which Franklin replies, "I'll take a dozen right now!"

Early campaign commercials were, I think, little more than an extension of product advertising, i.e. selling a candidate instead of a new brand of detergent.  The commercials themselves were fairly straightforward: candidates presenting themselves and their positions to the voters.

The televised debates of 1960 would demonstrate the power of TV to shape the campaign, as would JFK's accessibility to the camera through TV appearances and documentaries.  His assassination in 1963 further showed television as the new backyard fence, the gathering spot for American conversation.  It was inevitable that political advertising would evolve from the simple candidate-facing-the-camera commercials of the past. Here's an example of the former, a 1952 commercial by Dwight Eisenhower.

The 1964 campaign, according to Barnouw, represented the turning point in that development. Whereas these prior television commercials

had been built around the candidate[, t]he principal Doyle Dane Bernbach [the ad agency for the Democratic Party] spots were not. This may have been partly a matter of necessity; the nomination of Johnson, though a foregone conclusion, did not take place until the end of August, more than a month after the Goldwater nomination. Meanwhile the Doyle Dane Bernbach spots dealt – without mentioning him – with Goldwater.

Barnouw mentions two LBJ commercials in particular. The best known – perhaps the most famous ever made – was the “Daisy” commercial that showed a little girl picking the petals off a daisy, which morphed into a countdown to a nuclear blast.

The implication was obvious: that Goldwater was a mad bomber intent on nuking North Vietnam, China, Russia – any Communist country that happened to get in the way – accompanied, doubtlessly, by the deaths of millions of small children like the little girl with her daisy.

There was a second LBJ commercial, however, which I hadn’t previously heard of, which also packed a punch:

In another spot a girl was seen eating an ice-cream cone. There was the ticking of a Geiger counter. A motherly voice was meanwhile explaining about Strontium 90, a radioactive fallout product found to concentrate itself in milk. Again a viewer was reminded of Goldwater’s apparently casual attitude toward nuclear “devices” and perhaps his opposition to the test-ban treaty. 

Each of these commercials aired only once – the “Daisy” commercial, in particular, received so much free publicity through the news media that there seemed no reason to pay to have them shown again. They had made their point.*

*A third commercial, which was never shown, “subtly” connects Goldwater with the KKK. I think the Democrats were right to not air this one; it might even be considered over the top today, although I can't be positive. Watch it and see what you think.

It’s perhaps an indication of how naïve we were then, or how cynical we are now, that these commercials were considered unusual, even dirty play, by many. Goldwater himself protested that “[t]he homes of America are horrified and the intelligence of Americans is insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own.” In retrospect we might suggest that Goldwater, who as a candidate was often his worst enemy, was horrified primarily by the effectiveness of the spots.

There were other examples, less dramatic but no less effective: after a negative Goldwater reference to Social Security during the New Hampshire primary, Doyle Dane produced “a spot in which two hands were seen tearing up a Social Security card.” One can surely see the genesis of the Paul Ryan-pushing-granny’s-wheelchair-off-the-cliff commercial in this kind of advertising.

I don’t want to suggest that this kind of campaigning was limited to the Democrats. The Republicans countered with a long-form spot that attempted to suggest that Democrats, and LBJ in particular, were responsible for a “moral decay” enveloping the country. “The decay was depicted through glimpses of topless dancers, pornographic magazines, marquees of nudist films – and rioting.” The film, Barnouw claimed, “associated sexual emancipation and the rise of nudism with Negro protest movements; all were considered aspects of the breakdown of ‘law and order.’” Barnouw’s suggestion that this phrase, “law and order,’ was intended as a coded appeal to segregationists, is one that I don’t particularly agree with; nevertheless, there could be no question that the Republicans were responding to the Democrats in kind. The chairman of the Democratic Party, John Bailey, called it “the ‘sickest’ program in the history of television campaigning,” which I find a bit dubious,* but there’s no doubt that a new form of tele-campaigning was born. You can see that one below. (Goldwater didn't ban it as much as disown it; it's true that he prevented it from being shown again, but that was after it already aired.)

*Pot calling kettle…

I’m not taking sides here on the issue of negative campaigning. Certainly there are a lot of people who are sick to death of it; by the same token, most polls clearly show its effectiveness. When people stop responding positively to them, presumably, candidates will stop showing them.

What I’m really after here is a bit of historical perspective. What we see and hear today in the last days of this election campaign is nothing new and should hardly be surprising, for it represents a most natural evolution, for better or worse, of a political discourse that has been around since the beginning of the Republic, oftentimes in a form that was particularly nasty and personal. There is no question that negative ads have come to dominate the airwaves in a way which might have been unthinkable back in 1964 – and yet anyone looking at the effectiveness of the LBJ ads would have said that such a trend was inevitable. In fact, if we define the television era for campaign purposes as having starting in 1948, one could suggest that TV advertising had a relatively long period (12 years, to 1964) in which negative ads were not the dominant forms.

We may not much like it, but then we don’t much like poverty either – and yet, as Jesus reminds us, “the poor you will always have.” Negative campaigning would appear to be the same.

Portions of this were originally published October 10, 2012.

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