Mr. Nixon is remembered for quite a few things. There was Watergate, of course. There was losing to Kennedy in 1960. There were even the disastrous televised debates between himself and JFK– the first ever televised presidential debates. Perhaps the most underrated of Mr. Nixon’s memories is his transformation of the 1968 presidential election campaign.
“Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away,” Roger Ailes, Nixon’s PR man said.
“He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean this is how he strikes some people. That’s why these shows are important. To make them forget all that.” (McGinnis 1988, 103).
Learning from his disastrous mistakes in 1960, the Nixon campaign used the media to its full extent in 1968. Staged panels and question- and-answer sessions–much like the one Ailes described above– emotional commercials that said little but made the audience feel a lot, a carefully crafted image that was about as genuine as Fox News’s commitment to unbiased journalism and far less genuine than Wolf Blitzer’s devotion to Twitter. Nixon, on purpose or otherwise, revolutionized the very campaign process by turning it into a battle for image, for domination of the media, for the package to look and sound better than the individual parts. Before 1968, campaigns were heavily focused on the issues. After 1968, campaigns were design to, as Ailes put it “make them forget all that”.
The continuities we’ve seen since the Nixon campaign are resounding, of course. That’s the nature of revolutionary technology isn’t it? It’s only revolutionary once and then after that it’s a matter of adapting it so seamlessly that the revolution itself is forgotten. For all of the hours Nixon’s campaign spent crafting his image so that he would appear balanced, patriotic, refreshing and not a dull old man with bags under his eyes, there is double, triple the staff today to take care of what Ailes and company were so hard-put to do in 1968.
Image is absolutely still an important factor in the presidential race. What should an image of John McCain in blue with a red tie and Sarah Palin in bright red, both behind a podium reading COUNTRY FIRST evoke but an identification in America and the subsequent mental link between the McCain campaign and wholehearted patriotism? It’s not that McCain and Palin aren’t naturally patriotic. More that this image, like all images on the campaign trail even today, is a carefully crafted one–supplied and sustained by the funds of the Republican National Party. That’s not to say, of course, that Republicans are the only ones suspect. What are the Democrats but equal rivals not only in votes but in image conjuration as well?
No, politics is just as much of a con game as it was during Nixon’s time. Nixon might have used eerie music and chilling images to mask his political messages:
But even the 2008 political campaign saw advertisements where flashy images spoke more than the actual political stance itself:
What do you notice more here? That McCain has a firm stance in domestic and international policy? Or that Obama is a celebrity because there are camera bulbs flashing everywhere he goes? Carefully calculated images and political advertisements. Political campaigns are still barely more than a popularity contest and it’s just a matter of who has the winning outfit combination.
That isn’t to say that Nixon’s elevation of the presidential candidate to a “celebrity” or “god” status is necessarily the only component in today’s political campaign. That would be unfair to say. Sure, image plays a critical role, but unlike in 1968, there is a lot more exposure to different platforms and pieces of information today. In 1968, you turned on the television and saw the one Nixon campaign or the two televised debates. Maybe you read about it in the newspaper. The distribution of campaign material was very narrowly focused and so was consumption.
Today, social media has changed everything. No longer can Obama or McCain simply air commercials with flashing images and hope that the audience will ignore the fact that there is no substance behind it. For every journalist who ignores the substance for the image, there are two dozen bloggers waiting to analyze just exactly what it is that Obama and McCain said–what was their rhetoric like, was there any substance behind it, did they focus on domestic or foreign policy, did they change stances from previous votes?
The media has always been considered the watchdog of politics. Today, they aren’t alone. Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, the entire internet serves the function of a watchdog. Mr. Nixon’s image revolution is still critical, but the issues have re-emerged as important too. It’s not so easy to bedazzle the entire public through carefully constructed messages and images anymore. After all,
It’s not just that individual voters had access to a wider range of information about candidates and their positions on issues. Unlike in any other Presidential election, the electorate could harness a panoply of social media tools—blogs, social networks, photo and video sharing sites—to broadcast to the world their thoughts about the candidates and their experiences of the electoral process. (Businessweek)
There’s a lot more media and a lot more image construction for the presidential candidate to consider these days. There’s no such thing as a simple commercial or a PR team that can manipulate the entirety of America simply through emotional tactics. That’s not to say that it can’t be done to a certain extent–doesn’t your heart still skip when you hear Yes we can?–but politics has evolved beyond just looking good for the camera. Social media’s pervasiveness has made the necessity of the presidential candidate to be a double threat absolutely critical. Not only does Obama need to look flawless, but he needs to sound it too.
No doubt if Nixon was surrounded by so much technology and media today, so much media and noise would push him to the brink of paranoia and he would try to break into the Democratic Party’s Headquarters to get specific intel. Oh wait! Whoops. xoxo!
We’ve been talking about the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy through our group presentations and we’ve been gaining an understanding of how important “image” was in the success of JFK and the failure of Nixon. After that election, dubbed by many historians as the “advent of the modern Presidential campaign,” the idea of image that would be presented over TV and other mediums would only become more important. In Joe McGinniss’ book, he basically illustrates Nixon’s journey to re-brand himself as a new man from the ’60 election to the ’68 election.
Idealistically, elections would be decided based on the heart of the man and the intentions of the leader, but in this shallow world, the realistic truth is that image is everything. What the public perceives is what their decision relies on, and candidates do everything in their power to control that image. As an student majoring in advertising, I’ve spent most of my time studying the communication of image, and I can understand the immense challenge that presidential hopefuls face in convincing a nation that they can lead. Candidates must focus on communicating specific feelings when addressing the public through TV or other mediums. I see the Obama election of 2008 as a great comparison to Nixon’s of 1968. Both candidates tried to promote feel-good ideas of unity as their core messages (among other things, obviously). Here are two ads from Nixon’s and Obama’s campaigns that were highly successful at establishing their message, and are also eerily similar to each other, both in underlying message and the images shown.
The packaging of a president has to be a unified effort. Both in the goal of the candidate to encourage the public to perceive him as a unifying figure, and in the overall consistency of the candidate’s campaign. Nixon’s efforts to achieve that consistent branding in order to change the public’s perception of him draw comparisons to modern election strategies. Nixon used a unified message based on the idea “Nixon’s the One,” and his campaign spread the idea through all possible channels. Similarly, Obama used his phrases such as “Hope” and “Change,” as well as his signature logo to unify his message.
Though the general unified goal of campaigns has remained relatively consistent over time, there are significant differences in the strategies. In Nixon’s time, there weren’t quite as many mediums through which to communicate. He could correct the mistakes he made with TV in 1960 and change the way he presented himself, but the overall goal of achieving strong message strategy could be covered by focusing on TV, radio, and print, among a few others. Today, candidates have to go through TV, internet, social media, radio, and print, among other mediums. Also, they must be able to navigate the maelstrom that is the 24-7 barrage of news coverage and analysis. In addition, I think the growing diversity of the country has changed the landscape of political communication entirely. Not only must they deliver their message in direct, specific ways, but they are also forced to tailor their message to every conceivable community that this country can create.
Overall, the core idea behind candidates’ campaign strategies has remained relatively consistent, but the ever changing world and the ever growing needs and demands of the public will consistently complicate the process of running for president. However, the political powers will be always vigilant in finding ways to communicate with the people. We can look back at the election of ’68 and wonder where the simplicity of those days went (knowing full well that the politicians of the time would not have felt them to be simple), while at the same time we realize that the essence of the presidential campaign will continue to remain a constant.
Campaigning since Nixon’s run in the 1968 presidential election has focused on the idea that in order to be successful, a campaigner for public office must “advance from ‘politician’ to ‘celebrity'” (28). It’s no surprise that Nixon’s campaign employed this strategy to its fullest, as Nixon’s advisers had to transform a man who, eight years prior, was seen by the general public like this:
…into someone who looked more like this:
The idea of the President as a heroic figure, “…a combination of leading man, God, father, hero, pope, king…” (26) is one that was cultivated heavily during Nixon’s second run at the Presidency. It was during this campaign that campaigning as advertisement was used to its fullest and most successful, allowing a man who had for so long been considered a loser, a grouch, a man out of touch with the sensibilities and trends of his time to rise to the status of celebrity, a true man of the people, for the people. This was done thanks to the notion that appealing to the emotion, rather than the logic of the television viewer, would garner the most votes. In the following, this method is used heavily, evoking a television viewer’s sense of fear in the hope that by implying that Nixon was the only one to save America from nuclear destruction, Communist takeover and the hardships of war, voters would come out in droves to vote for him (spoiler alert: it worked).
In this sense, little has changed in terms of how Presidential candidates campaign on television. So often, how a candidate says something, rather than what his stance on the issues is, takes precedence. In this McCain ad, McCain delivers an appeal to pride without once speaking to any relevant issues of his time, similar to how Nixon appealed to fear in his 1968 ad.
In this ad, Obama also appeals to an American sense of pride and charity. He does, however, touch on some relevant issues of his time, but most of the commercial focuses on what a great guy Obama is, rather than logically explaining why health care reform was necessary, for example. The inspirational music in the background implies that what Obama did in his past was indeed the right thing to do, without any mention of why it was right or how it would allow him to lead the country as a whole, rather than the smaller, more specific communities he lead in his past.
The point of this comparison is to show that presidential television campaigns are very similar to as they were during Nixon’s campaign, honing in on a viewer’s emotions more than logic. As Raymond K. Price noted when writing about the best way to appeal to voters,
We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable… (38)
Perhaps the most striking difference between the campaigns of then and now is the viciousness with which modern candidates attack their opponents. Two instances most recently evident include this Obama ad and this McCain ad. During the 1968 campaigns, such negative ads were non-existent or, at least, less shameless than these examples. Additionally, the advent of the Internet and social networks have allowed candidates to reach younger audiences at rates unseen in the past. This, of course, lead to the number of young voters (18-29) to turn out in slightly less embarrassing numbers, rather than their typical dismal numbers in the 2008 election, primarily for Obama, who used the Internet and Facebook more than McCain to campaign.
So, even though the concept of appealing to emotion rather than reason remains a hallmark of political TV campaigns, they have also become more typical of a Miller Lite campaign that bashes its competition, the shortcomings of that competition and makes implications on how supporting that competition will make one’s life markedly worse as the primary appeal for why one should vote for a candidate. (Note: my apologies for making people watch that Miller Lite commercial. I really hate them, but the similarities between its shamelessness and the shamelessness of the aforementioned campaign ads had striking similarities, in my view. Also, most political campaign ads, like Miller Lite, are tasteless, misleading and only sell well because of the image they create, not necessarily the product they produce.)
Political campaigns have most certainly changed since the Nixon campaign in 1968. During Nixon’s campaign, Henry Treleaven became adamant with the idea that image on television is what would make the difference for Nixon to finally pull through with a presidential win.
Nixon’s strategy was to air still photographs in his commercials, which would prevent people from paying too much attention to Nixon’s voice. This allowed Treleaven to create an ‘image’ of Nixon, by letting the images create the impression (something new and fresh during this period of time). As an example, Eugene Jones was a documentary filmmaker who created Nixon’s commercials from still photographs and enticing music.
This commerical (as seen on thelivingroomcandidate.com) was aired 8 days before election day. It gave the impression that Herbert Humphrey was laughing at dying soldiers in Vietnam, making this commercial a controversial and risky statement so close to the election. In a way, this was an early form of ‘attack’ media commercials, an idea that is so familiar to us in today’s time.
Political campaigns have stayed all the way to our modern times in the way that presidential candidates still strive to create an ‘image’ of themselves that will leave a lasting impression on the American people. In 2008, Republican John McCain posed a familiar commercial. Similiar to the previous Nixon commercial, McCain uses images, classical music, and a short narration to create an image for himself.
Although there are some similarities between the campaign of 1968 and modern times, there are also a vast amount of differences. With the advancement of technology, presidential candidates can afford to continuously “attack” the opposing side in their campaign commercials. As seen in the 2008p residential campaign, the majority of the candidates commercials seemed to be more focused on showing what the opposing side could not do, rather than broadcasting to the public what the individual candidates themselves would be able to do.
For example, McCain’s attack on Obama
and Obama’s attack on McCain:
Another difference, is that in the Nixon campaign, Nixon never held an ‘official’ debate with Humphrey. Instead, Nixon held a telecast where a 6-member panel asked questions directed towards Nixon’s policies that were supposed to shed light on his campaign.This allowed Nixon to formulate answers to questions he already knew were going to be asked. However, today’s campaigns deal with several face-to-face (and what could even be called cut-throat) debates between both the presidential candidates and both the vice-presidential candidates.
The presidential campaign of Richard Nixon in 1968 was influential and ground-breaking in many ways. Even today there are similarities in the ways that presidential and political candidates are presented to our nation that are continually built upon from year to year. What was so interesting about Nixon’s campaign was the way he used advertising and communication professionals to really capture the “image” he was trying to promote. One way that this was apparent through the reading of Joe McGinniss’ book, The Selling of the President, was the campaign commercials created by Gene Jones. These commercials were created to send a message to Americans about Nixon’s desired image, not necessarily the specifics or issues of his campaign. One such commercial, the longest of those created, was tweaked and modified until it was suitable to be shown to all voting audiences in the nation.
This type of political advertising ensues today, as candidates package themselves by the image they hope to get across. Most recently, Obama’s campaign slogans of “Hope” and “Change” that were seen all over the political atmosphere in his 2008 presidential campaign come to mind of this type of whole image appeal.
Another way that campaigns today are similar to that of Nixon’s in 1968 is the sheer amount of attention and money invested in campaign advertising. A “steep” price of $100,000 was spent on acquiring Gene Jones to do the commercial work for Nixon; a price considered worth it for what he would bring to the campaign. Today, figures continue to grow. According to a 2008 Parade article, a total of about $3 billion was spent on advertising, with the majority of this money being funneled toward television ads. The article also claims the rise in interest advertising is beginning to play a role in campaigns today, as there was an approximately 600% increase in this channel of political media usage from the 2004 presidential elections.
One way that campaigning has grown and adapted from the 1968 election is the “mudslinging” often seen between candidates in political elections today. Evidence of this type of campaign strategy began to emerge in the 1968 election but the pitting of one candidate’s image against the other, instead of flat-out attacking, seemed to be more the standard. This is seen in the Hubert Humphrey’s campaign program, “The Mind Changer”, as described by McGinniss. In this program, Humphrey and his campaign and advertising staff were able to “match Hubert Humphrey’s heart against Richard Nixon’s skills and the heart seemed by far the more appealing.” Today, we are more used to candidate’s campaign issues and party ideals being openly questioned through outlets such as television ads. One example from the 2008 presidential election is provided below:
A final difference that is noticeable from the 1968 presidential campaign to today is the ability of political candidates to target select audiences throughout the nation. This tactic began being used in 1968, as the various Gene Jones commercials were specifically used in different parts of the country, but today there is even more explicit usage of this campaign strategy. As noted in the previously mentioned Parade article from 2008, “campaign strategists have learned to target their ads down to Congressional districts and precincts where undecided and swing voters live.” This not only allows for more practical use of campaign adversing spending but creates more power for the candidates able to best utilize this angle in their own campaigns.
Overall, the presidential campaigns of 1968 appear to have set the stage for a more professional and polished use of advertising and PR in one’s political career. If you want to succeed in the political world, it’s not just issues or your political capabilities that determine your achievements; you have to give Americans “the whole package.”
Youtube. Internet Articles. Twitter. Facebook Advertisements.
None of these words made since to the American public in 1968 when Richard Nixon and Herbert Humphrey were vying for the Office of President. Flash forward to the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain where these words were not only second nature for most voters but were methods that each candidate and the media used almost every day throughout the campaign.
While these methods used today were not even in existence in 1968, the television was. According to Joe McGinniss, “The content of the programs made little difference. Except for startling lapses, content seldom does. What mattered was the image the viewers received, though few observers at the time caught the point.” During this time image is what sold and television is what sold it. The book written by McGinnis, The Selling of the President: The Classic Account of the Packaging of a Candidate, discussed the importance of television in the 1968 election. It gave voters easy accessibility to the candidates. Raymond Price, Nixon’s campaign speech writer wrote, “Voters are basically lazy, uninterested in making an effort to understand what we’re talking about.” This quote couldn’t be more true.
Here are some examples of campaign advertisements on tv for the 1968 election. Now fast forward. Since these black and white ads campaign teams have made it even easier for “lazy voters”, as Price called them, to access the image they are trying to get across of their candidate. Today’s version of the television is the Internet; and it has completely changed election campaigns with the use of online articles, Twitter, and Facebook to name a few.
Back in 1968 Nixon had a hard time making the decision to use television to revamp his image. According to McGinniss, he thought of using it as playing a game, an eastern liberal trick, and a gimmick. I would be curious to hear his thoughts on campaigning today. With the vast usage of numerous media forms today from phone applications, online articles, television, and print media voters have become consumed with the portrayed image of the candidate.
So what has changed since 1968? Nothing. While the media is more easily accessible to voters, the game is the same. Just as in 1968, today we are still obsessing over the image; the image created by campaign teams and the image controlled through these media forms. Think about it.