Up until today, the American Republican and Democratic parties had spent more than 800 million dollars, combined, to infiltrate voters' television sets. During this year's presidential campaigns, an avid television-watcher in Florida would have been exposed to more than 100,000 political commercials.
American presidents didn't used to advertise. It all started when Rosser Reeves, an advertising executive (and the man behind the M&M campaign "Melts in your mouth, not in your hand") advised American president Dwight Eisenhower to replace his lengthy broadcast speeches with short advertising spots, to win voters for the 1952 presidential election.
Reeves' strategy -called the "Unique Selling Proposition"- focused on a single characteristic of a product to differentiate it from its competition. In 1952, his product was a presidential candidate.
As his approach spread, so did single-story ads. A slow-motion clip of George Bush, Sr. hugging his grand-children, suggested that he would be an approachable and loving "everyman" commander-in-chief. Some ads (for Nixon, Carter, Clinton, Obama) promised change, while others promised protection from a "world of terror, madmen and missiles”. One 2006 advertisement for a school board position even invoked the Jedi.
Campaign advertisement tricks can range from spectacular (Hollywood-esque low-angle shots, catchy tunes and horror-movie-style strobe effects) to sneaky (ie. outright lies). Incumbent U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 attack ad against candidate Barry Goldwater, had both. The video insinuated that Goldwater alone could trigger a chilling nuclear explosion and endanger the lives of cute children in flower fields.
This year, more than 80% of both parties' advertising budgets went to attack ads. Strategists prize the attack ad for its potency, since potential threats seem to influence voters most. But the ultimate effects of both positive and negative commercials on votes are difficult to pin down. The 1964 re-election of Nelson Rockefeller for Governor of New York is said to have been the first time that TV advertising made the deciding difference. His ad campaign featured an interview with a fish about local water quality.
Do frequent political commercials create informed citizens? Buying airspace for political advertising is banned in some countries, on the premise that a thirty-second commercial leaves no time to reflect upon anything important, let alone choosing a ruler for the next several years. Where commercials are permitted, voters may be left with nothing more than a blur of red or blue, a witty quote, and a handy motto or two. Change we can believe in. May it come to political PR, too.