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How Politics Became a Television Product

Posted: 09/02/2012 9:58 pm

As we head toward the home stretch of the 2012 campaign season the blizzard of TV political ads becomes more intense each day. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to produce the commercials and pay for airtime to broadcast them. For this we can all thank a man named Rosser Reeves.

Most voters today have probably never heard of him, but Reeves was one of the most influential political operatives of the last century. Sixty years ago he changed campaigning forever by creating a series of televised spots that helped Dwight Eisenhower win the presidency.

A detailed account of how Reeves made Ike the first TV-friendly candidate can be found in The Fifties by David Halberstam. It wasn't a back-slapping, jolly collaboration by any measure.

Rosser Reeves was an advertising man at the Ted Bates Agency and was widely known for creating ads that were blunt, simple, and got results. One of his most memorable commercials was for Anacin and showed the inside of a head with a pounding hammer, coiled spring, and a bolt of electricity. Variations of those ads ran for years. I remember seeing them as a little kid, and I still think of that cranial hammer slamming whenever I get a headache.

In 1948 Reeves had an idea for a series of radio spots to help Republican Thomas Dewey topple Harry Truman, but Dewey rejected the offer. Like many politicians of that time, he thought running ads on the radio was undignified.

Four years later Reeves was approached by a group of businessmen supporting Eisenhower and they wanted him to come up with a slogan for the campaign. Reeves convinced the group they needed more than a slogan; they needed to Ike's face on TV, speaking directly into the living rooms of America.

Eisenhower agreed to the plan but wasn't enthusiastic. Like Dewey four years earlier, he worried that TV spots would make him look like a huckster.

Rosser Reeves had no such reservations. He believed most great speeches could be boiled down to a few memorable lines. One example he used was Franklin Roosevelt saying "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." To Reeves, that was Roosevelt's version of a 15-second spot.

The Eisenhower ads had a simple format. A person's face would appear and ask a question such as, "Mr. Eisenhower, are we going to have to fight another war?" Then Ike's face would pop on and give a brief answer. Reeves also had pollsters at work so the spots could be targeted at key areas in swing states, and he made sure they ran during time periods when viewership was highest.

The Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, hated the idea of bringing TV advertising into politics. He called it "merchandising the presidency." Unfortunately for Stevenson and other critics of the Ike spots, television wasn't a fad and its power to affect American attitudes was growing rapidly and couldn't be turned back.

Rosser Reeves died in 1984. He would probably be highly satisfied to see how his ideas for linking television advertising with politics continue to be expanded, revised and refined with each new election cycle. I think he'd be especially impressed by how quickly candidates can now adjust their spots to re-frame an issue, push back against attack ads, or exploit an opponent's mistake.

There's nothing new I can add about the negative aspects TV political ads. They avoid complex issues in favor simplistic slogans. They're often misleading or filled with false claims. But they keep getting results, and that fact is what keeps the system going.

It's a system that resists any notion of serious regulation. Can you imagine the outcry that would erupt if some government agency tried to screen the content of campaign commercials for accuracy before they went on the air?

So on we go. In the freewheeling, free-market world of TV political advertising and the transformation of politics into a product the only suggestion I can offer is: Let the buyer beware. And keep your headache pills handy.

 

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