From Idea to Ad
How does a political idea become transformed into a thirty second message? Here you can explore the step by step creation of an ad campaign. The classic 1952 "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign can be examined with the help of artifacts from the Rosser Reeves Collection at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. It's the original political TV ad campaign, and almost five decades later the step by step process is still very much the same.
Today's modern political consultant is a specialized hybrid of advertiser and politician; a political communications expert who may advise a client on a number of ways to communicate with the public. But in the early days of television there were just politicians and ad men.
One of the best ad men was Rosser Reeves. He'd made a name for himself creating campaigns for big clients like Anacin, Colgate, and M&M's. Famous for catchy slogans like "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands," Reeves was approached by a group of Texas business men to come up with a Republican slogan to compete with the Democrats' "You Never Had It So Good." Instead of a mere slogan, Reeves pitched an entire campaign. Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower would speak to voters' chief concerns in a series of short television "spots" airing shortly before the November election. "Eisenhower Answers America" was just underway.
To win an election a candidate must do two things: Develop a message that resonates with voters; and deliver that message. Today, using sophisticated polling and focus group testing, politicians can carefully shape the messages they put out to voters to maximize public acceptance. And detailed knowledge of when certain kinds of voters will be watching TV lets the politician target particular constituents.
In 1952, Rosser Reeves did not commission any special poll to create "Eisenhower Answers America." He simply asked pollster George Gallup for Americans' chief concern. Gallup responded that Washington corruption, the cost of living, and the conflict in Korea topped the list, and Reeves went about shaping ads on those themes. While today, thirty second ads for candidates are taken as a given, in 1952 the Eisenhower campaign needed convincing to use television advertising. Reeves had a colleague prepare a report spelling out the advantages.
In the early days of television, companies who wanted to advertise often paid for an entire program. That show would carry the company's name and would only carry the company's ads. Shows like "Camel News Caravan" and "Texaco Star Theater" are famous examples. But Rosser Reeves figured out that if you place your ads between programs you reach the audience built by popular shows at a fraction of the cost. These short advertisements came to be known as "spots" and to be effective had to be brief and memorable. Reeves was a master of the form. Up to this point, most campaigning on television was limited to buying airtime to broadcast speeches. In fact, Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson's television spending was already committed to speeches. Reeves had spoken to people who'd listened to Eisenhower's speeches and found they retained little of what he'd said. The research report argued that spot advertising should be adapted to the Eisenhower campaign and called for an intensive airing of the spots in the three weeks prior to the election.
While a few political ads adopt a documentary approach, most start with a script. The script is the initial effort to distill political concepts into an understandable, even dramatic, presentation.
Rosser Reeves, through his work on spot advertising, was well prepared for this distillation process. His secret was strict adherence to what he called the "Unique Selling Proposition." USP, as it was called, was a single quality of a product that let it stand out against competition. M&M's were unlike all those messy candies that would melt in your hands, for example. Through repetition, the particular identified quality would stay in consumers' heads when it was time to buy. Reeves took this single-mindedness to the Eisenhower campaign.
While he would have preferred just one theme to build the ads around, Reeves took the three concerns identified by Gallup (Korea, corruption, and cost of living) and wrote a series of scripts. None of the short spots would deal with more than one topic, each of them consisting of a single question asked of Eisenhower by a "typical" voter. The candidate's responses were culled carefully by Reeve's reading Eisenhower's many campaign speeches. So, in essence, the message of the candidate matches the rest of the campaign, but the spot presents that message in a simplified, memorable form.
Shooting a political ad starts the transformation of ideas into images. To keep viewers engaged, television advertising needs to communicate visually. Slogans and scripted words work only on one level of perception. Think of how often you see a flag in political ads. Here the candidate wants to build associations between him or herself and the patriotic feelings brought on by waving the flag. But this is only the most obvious example.
For "Eisenhower Answers America," Rosser Reeves filmed Eisenhower in an empty studio. Visually there is very little to distract viewers, no flags or symbols of power. But Eisenhower is filmed from a slightly low angle, meaning we look up at him. The voters asking questions are filmed looking up as though addressing someone of enormous stature. Eisenhower is always seen alone, he doesn't share the frame with his questioners. In fact, the questioners never actually spoke with Ike, they were filmed later. Reeves recruited tourists at Radio City Music Hall and had them ask scripted questions in the studio a few days after Eisenhower was filmed.
While some Republican leaders worried that appearing in a commercial would diminish Eisenhower's stature, in the ad his stature is visually enhanced. At the same time the candidate is seen relating to everyday people, and offering memorable solutions to their problems. At times, however, Eisenhower seems a little wide-eyed and unfocused, probably because Reeves didn't want him to wear his glasses and he is struggling to make out large cue cards. Ike is said to have moaned, "To think an old soldier should come to this..."
Today, paying for ads often takes the better part of a candidate's budget. Supporters of campaign finance reform point to the high cost of television advertising as a principle factor in driving up campaign spending. Some advocate letting candidates have free television time to address voters, but some consultants feel this would put limits on how a candidate can deliver his message.
Rosser Reeves knew the "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign would be expensive. In fact, one research report was entitled "A $2,000,000 Campaign to Ensure an Eisenhower Victory." To help pay to place the ads on television stations, the Eisenhower campaign turned to local committees in the key states needed for a victory and asked them to raise money to air the ads in their local markets.
THE AD BUY
Ad buying is a full-time job on many campaigns these days. With multiples channels to select from, a buyer can consult detailed information on which programs appeal to which voters. Then the buyer can tailor a strategy designed to reach particular voters with a particular message.
The strategy in the "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign was described as a blitz; multiple airings in the three weeks before the election. The appeal was designed to be as broad as possible, but airing of the spots was particularly concentrated in states where the race was close.
The "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign received much attention and stirred some controversy. Democratic opponent Adlai Stevenson attacked it as showing "contempt for the intelligence of the American people." But even Stevenson saw that political commercials would become standard campaign fare. When he ran again in 1956, it was a priority to land a firm to handle his ads, something that proved hard to do on Republican-dominated Madison Avenue.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower would have easily won the election even without political commercials. In fact, some believe it was not until Nelson Rockefeller's 1966 New York Governor's race that a television spot campaign could be credited as a major factor in an election. "Eisenhower Answers America" did, however, demonstrate on a national scale that television would change America's political campaigns. And it provided a model of production that is useful to this day.
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