It’s incredibly interesting to see how political advertising has changed over the last 70 years. The change is immense, both in the style as well as the sheer number of ads a candidate would run during a campaign. They’ve changed as politics have gained more widespread involvement, and with the ever-changing political environment of the U.S. It’s interesting to analyze advertisements that show a variety of different styles including being promotional, attacking, or issue-based, and discuss their effectiveness.
After a review of 44 advertisements, those that were most effective were Dwight Eisenhower’s “Ike for President” (1952), Richard Nixon’s “Most Important Issue” (1960) and Jimmy Carter’s “South” (1976). Among those that were most ineffective were Ronald Reagan’s “Podium” (1980), Hubert Humphrey’s “Laughter” (1968) and Jimmy Carter’s “Ballot” (1980).
Dwight Eisenhower’s “Ike for President” One of the main goals of a political ad is to get the politician’s name out there and leave people thinking about them, and this ad does a fantastic job of accomplishing that. After the first time watching the ad, one finds themselves singing, “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike” nonstop. It did its main job – getting Ike’s name into people’s heads. Once the initial thought is in someone’s head a few things will happen: People will do their due diligence researching a candidate, but they will begin with Ike because he’s the go-to name now because of this ad. As more research is done, people will reinforce their support of Ike after liking his political agenda in addition to his fun tune they heard somewhere. This ad seems also to be working to gain the support of not one particular group, but instead the American population as a whole. In a notably stressful time politically, Eisenhower purposefully produces an ad that is a little bit apolitical to provide a minor stress relief. This also ties back to the fact that he wasn’t targeting one group specifically – all who enjoy this fun ad should vote for him. Building off of that, in the video there are people of all kinds of professions and classes dancing around in support of him. This means that he is targeting people of varying education levels, and the reality today, as well as in 1952, is that there was a percentage among the millions of voters who didn’t put much thought or reasoning into their vote. They would have just voted for whichever candidate they were the most familiar with, and “Ike for President” does a fantastic job of ensuring that people were familiar with his name, and leading to a whole lot more votes.
Richard Nixon’s “Most Important Issue” This advertisement serves as another example of a campaign strategy that really worked. It is a very simple yet effective structure. He explains the issue, how he will handle the issue, and why his strategy is effective. He is not trying to recruit a certain demographic for his vote, or trying to lure in unsure voters. He is providing what he believes to be the best stance on an issue, and saying that if you agree with it, the voting decision should be simple. The issue at hand is the Cold War and how he will handle relations with the Soviet Union, which he claims to be the “most important” of them all, and many Americans at the time would agree. Since it is believed to be the most important issue, it makes sense that it is a very seriously toned ad. His attire, facial expressions, and demeanor all point to the fact that what he is saying is extremely important, and not the type of thing that should be taken jovially. Having some kind of jingle or informal environment, as seen in many other ads, would not have been the most effective way of getting his point across. Additionally, explaining that what he’s done has worked for the last two presidential terms when he served as Eisenhower’s vice president as evidence to support the fact that it will continue to work is very reasonable. Nixon’s mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was pretty smart, and while that may sound like a silly application of that saying, the basis of it is true: he has first-hand experience dealing with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, has avoided direct conflict for 8 years and has not made any major surrenders. He argues that there is no better person than himself to continue that, and that is a justified claim for him to make. Overall, Nixon’s ad does a good job of confirming his stance on a very important issue, showing why he is the best option in the election for all those who agreed with his firm position.
Jimmy Carter’s “South”While some may criticize it for its lacking inclusivity, “South” was actually quite strong. As a candidate that was not extremely well-known, this does a great job of building a sense of identity for Carter. By appearing in his small Georgia hometown and walking through the fields, he’s showing that he is really not all that different from the voters. He’s comparing himself to them to try and be personable and relatable. In addition to the setting being within a field, his attire does a good job of making him feel more relatable. The simple buttoned shirt with rolled up sleeves and regular jeans completes this well, especially because it’s not the kind of outfit you first imagine when you think “President of the United States.” It is important to point out that the voters he is appealing to are a very specific group. This ad is fully intended to appeal to those like himself, who consider themselves to not just be from the South, but to be Southerners – those who are proud of their southern heritage. Carter works to make voters relate to him, and because he did a good job of that, the southern voters will feel more comfortable with him. They will truly believe Carter in his promises to work in favor of them, as the voters know that he understands their issues on a personal level. Carter’s strategy here is very smart. He is building his layers of support from the ground up, and it’s clear that he knows where to begin. All that matters at the moment is getting this very specific group of people’s votes, and the rest could come later. Those in other regions of the country may see it, and obviously would not be immediately in support of Carter. However, that truly may not matter to him, as he’s ensured that each and every voter in the south will see this ad and see a little bit of themselves in him, surely enough to sway their vote in his direction.
Ronald Reagan’s “Podium”This ad from the 1980 presidential election was quite ineffective. It was simply an attack ad that didn’t completely get the job done. For one thing, he stated facts that were already known to the public. Obviously, if inflation and unemployment were so problematic, everybody in America would know because they’d be feeling the effects of it, and they were. So what good was he doing for himself by stating already well known facts? He wasn’t going to educate anybody on the situation and flip their vote in his favor. Therefore the answer to the previous question is that it didn’t really do him any good. It’s not as though what Reagan is saying is inaccurate. It’s just that he’s not raising awareness of any situation, as the awareness is already at its peak. They are trying to bring anger upon the people towards the current administration. However, all of the people who would get mad at the situation and therefore vote for Reagan, already are angry (and will likely vote for him)! Because of this, there is no real point to this ad. What would’ve done him good is if he explained how he would solve the issues he brings up. However, he does not really do that in any way. Through the entirety of the ad, his strategy is not even to bring himself up. He makes no real elevation, but instead continuously lowers President Jimmy Carter. Overall, this ad was not one that helped Reagan all that much, and it would not have been very effective in gaining him a large number of votes.
This 1968 advertisement, coincidentally also an attack ad, also was rather ineffective. The ineffectiveness stemmed from two major things. The first of these was the actual feeling one gets from the ad. Obviously, this is a subjective opinion, but the ad is quite creepy. The laughter seemed almost villainous, and the odd choking at the end also seemed like it was straight out of a movie scene, where the evil character is plotting their plan for destruction. Overall, as someone watching this political advertisement at the time of its airing, it would’ve given me too weird of a feeling for me to actually receive the message that it’s trying to convey about how bad of a choice Spiro Agnew was for vice president. The other cause of its ineffectiveness was its aforementioned message, that Agnew was a terrible vice presidential candidate. The reason the ad is ineffective is because it would only actually impact a small portion of voters. The majority of voters are not going to be politically active, nor aware of who Agnew even is (with the exception of Maryland voters). Additionally, they won’t be so involved in the race that their vote would be heavily affected by vice presidential nominees. Therefore, the choice to attack Spiro Agnew is not the best because many voters won’t really care about the vice president and how good they are. Only those who are very politically active and know about Agnew would be affected by this, whether it’s in heavy agreement or disagreement. The unconventional nature of the ad gives it potential to be very effective, but it may have just been published in the wrong era. Had the ad ran in a modern day election, it would spread through social media like wildfire, leading to all kinds of opinions being formed. This could be said about every single ad, but it is so unconventional that it would be distinct and a hot topic of conversation in today’s world. However, since that is not the case, and it was run in 1968, it simply ran when it was scheduled to, but was not spread or widely talked about. Overall, it was yet another example of a fairly ineffective attack advertisement. One additional thing that can’t be left out in regards to this ad, but doesn’t particularly relate to its effectiveness, is the accuracy that it held with Agnew, foreshadowing the disgrace he would come to be in future years.
This advertisement which ran prior to the 1980 election also was rather ineffective. This election was an extremely important one, with the country in a time of economic and international crisis. There was also a major divide between parties due to Reagan’s extreme conservatism. Regardless of that, Carter was doing everything he could to secure the same votes that so narrowly elected him in 1976, and this ad does not seem to be the best way for doing that. For starters, it’s not even him conveying the message, and the lack of specificity to present day issues makes it seem a little bit out of touch and therefore ineffective. Of course, political ads can still be very effective despite not having the candidate speaking the whole time. However, to have someone else speaking for you when it’s simply to encourage people to vote straight down the ticket seems lazy to me. An additional thing that lessens its value is that the person who Carter chose to represent him through this ad was Harry Truman. It was not like this was some idolized figure within the Democratic Party. It was actually a president so unpopular that he didn’t even run for an additional term. He was eligible, and willingly chose not to run because of his plummeting popularity. Had he chosen a different political figure, maybe the laziness of it would not be as strong. In this case, some would say that it is about what he is saying, not he who is saying it. Truthfully, what is he saying that Carter felt would be such a great benefit to bring to his campaign? Encouraging to vote Democrat without giving any reasoning or encouraging factors whatsoever won’t bring any new voters in Carter’s direction, nor even secure those who were already leaning Democrat. Similarly to the situation with Reagan’s ad, it’s not accomplishing anything, as those who already planned to vote Democrat still will, and those who planned to vote Republican will ignore this ad. Overall, the advertisement had no real effective message, as well as no effective means of conveying the message, and it likely did almost nothing to boost Carter as a candidate.
An important takeaway is that there isn’t one thing or another that makes an ad effective or ineffective. The diversity of the ads discussed make this very clear, since both a 30 second ditty recruiting voters as well as a minute-long speech to the camera addressing the Cold War issues are extremely effective ads. It is clear as well that certain things can draw back an ad from being as effective as it could be, such as two of the attack ads mentioned. When making ads like those, one must be really precise as they have so much potential to be very effective, but could be easily done wrong, making it so that they really missed their marks. In relation to that, it seems different ads can have varying effectiveness depending on the political environment of the nation, the nature of the ad, and of course, the candidate running it. Overall, it is easy to appreciate the diversity of different ads and how ads that are so drastically different can all have the same result. It allows for a lot of free space and creativity for those planning and producing political advertisements.
Davis Hood, a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Manhattan, wrote this essay for American Government from the Inside Out, a pre-college program at Columbia University.