Selling the President

Five months ago and in the dog days of summer, spending on the 2012 presidential campaign had already surpassed the $100 million mark, with ads chiefly aimed at a handful of swing states — including North Carolina — in what the New York Times called “the earliest concentration of advertising in modern politics.”

As Election Day arrives, the Associated Press reports that the total spent on TV ads in this year’s race for the White House has ballooned to a record $1 billion, mainly targeted at 10 key states. “Never before has so much money been spent on so many commercials aimed at so few voters,” the AP writes.

As voters in battleground states contend with an unprecedented deluge of presidential ads, it is fitting to look back 60 years to their origin in the election of 1952 and the beginning of this peculiar intersection of Madison and Pennsylvania avenues. That year the campaign of former five-star general and Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower recruited adman Rosser Reeves to craft a novel television commercial blitz.

Reeves, who helped coin the slogan “melt in your mouth, not in your hands” for M&M’s chocolate candy, produced a series of 40 spots entitled “Eisenhower Answers America.” While the ads were made to look like spontaneous questions from “real Americans,” in reality the answers – scripted on cue cards for Eisenhower to read – were filmed first. Rosser’s team then wrangled New York City tourists to film the equally scripted questions.

In a subtle stroke of effective imagery, the inquiring citizens were told to look upward, while Eisenhower was filmed separately, looking slightly downward, creating a sense of paternal reverence for the candidate, reciprocated by his fatherly gaze and sage advice.

Added to the mix of ads was the memorable “I Like Ike” spot, featuring a catchy jingle created by Irving Berlin and animated by Roy Disney, the brother of none other than Walt.

Eisenhower’s Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson, was slow to the TV airwaves. His campaign manager denigrated the television tactic as selling the presidency in the same manner as “soap, ammoniated toothpaste, hair tonic or bubble gum.” While the Stevenson camp eventually employed TV advertising, the candidate refused to appear in the ads himself (a precursor to the obstinate refusal by a pallid Richard Nixon to wear makeup in the first-ever televised debate in 1960).

Stevenson was severely outspent by Eisenhower’s campaign, which paid a shocking $2 million (about $17 million in today’s dollars) to flood the airwaves with ads in the final weeks of the election. Unable to swiftly respond to the marketing monsoon, Stevenson was effectively painted as an effete egghead, compared to Eisenhower’s image as a confident leader.

The World War II hero swept to victory, taking 55 percent of the popular vote, 39 states and 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89. The win ended 20 years of Democratic control of the White House and the age of made-for-TV presidential campaigns, for better or worse, was born.

Poor Ohio.

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