Ever since Madison Avenue advertising man Rosser Reeves convinced Dwight Eisenhower to use him and TV commercials to run for the presidency in 1952, the political TV commercial has become a pivotal component in American presidential politics.
Four years earlier Reeves tried to interest the then Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, in the approach. But Dewey “did not buy the idea of lowering himself to the commercial environment of a toothpaste ad,” related Robert Spero in his 1980 book The Duping of the American Voter, Dishonesty & Deception in Presidential Television Advertising.
The Eisenhower commercials were coordinated with the campaign’s slogan—“I Like Ike.”
Indeed, one spot featured a song especially written by Irving Berlin titled “I Like Ike.”There was an early understanding by Reeves that television best communicates feeling and emotion, not information. TV, as media theorists later described it, is a “non-cognitive medium.” Thus the Eisenhower ads—stressing Eisenhower’s likeability – involved feeling and emotion, making the strongest use of the TV medium.
I recall, as a kid, seeing the TV image of Eisenhower back then, grinning.
The intellectual Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson, tried to counter the blitz of 15-second Eisenhower spots. Stevenson embarked on a series of half-hour TV presentations, reiterating and expanding on themes he struck in his convention acceptance speech. These lectures, essentially, didn’t work.
With television, as Joe McGinniss wrote in his seminal 1969 The Selling of the President, “it matters less” that a politician “does not have ideas. His personality is what the viewers want to share. The TV candidate...is measured...not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy—but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside? Style becomes substance. The medium is the massage and the masseur gets the votes.”
TV talk show personality Mike Douglas is dead. But the dynamic McGinniss described continues—indeed has expanded politically.
As observed Richard Reeves in a 1980 television report, “ABC News Closeup: Lights, Cameras...Politics,” realizing TV “transmits feelings and emotion better than it transmits information...media consultants tried to motivate Americans to vote the same way that they were motivated to buy toothpaste: with little entertainments.”
He cited as an early example of this the infamous spot put together in 1964 by Tony Schwartz for Lyndon Johnson. A little girl plucks petals from a daisy, counting up to nine and then a man’s voice counts down from ten to zero—and suddenly the TV screen fills with the super-scary footage of a hydrogen bomb, and Johnson’s voice states: “The stakes are too high...We must either love each other or we must die.”
Schwartz later wrote in his book The Responsive Chord: “The task of a media specialist is not to reveal a candidate’s stand on issues, so much as to help communicate those personal qualities of a candidate that are likely to win votes.” This spot and the strong emotion it was designed to impart were aimed at leaving the viewer feeling that Lyndon Johnson was a person of responsibility, and his opponent, Barry Goldwater, something else.
Further, with this spot, the TV political attack ad, the emotionally-laden negative political TV commercial, had arrived—to become a mainstay of election advertising.
By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had become a model for TV-based presidential TV commercials—and politics. Many voters might have disliked his policies, but a substantial number “liked” Reagan—based on the image he projected through television.
With the ability to performing on television having become a necessary attribute of a presidential candidate, the Republican Party had chosen an actor to run for president. Reagan had been governor of California but, importantly, Reagan for eight years before that was a TV performer, host of General Electric Theatre, after his Hollywood career hit the skids.
It had come to a point at which Newsday columnist Robert Weimer declared in 1980: “Why bother with the arduous, uncertain and expensive process of casting ballots at all? Why not simply put presidential candidates into a head-to-head, prime-time competition on election night and let the ratings decide the contest....It’s not hard to understand why the candidates have settled on television as their main mode of communication. It reaches the most people with the most impact, even if it does tend to sell only gross attributes. Audience perception of a smile, for example, can determine the outcome of a presidential race...Television is essentially a medium that appeals more to spinal than cerebral receptors. The message that gets through is spare: Ronald Reagan is affable.”
We can now analyze presidential candidate after candidate through the prism of political TV commercials and television performance.
It can be very unsettling. Consider what was widely described as a great problem for Al Gore when he ran against George W. Bush in 2000: most folks would rather, it was said, go out for a beer with Bush than Gore. Gore’s persona as transmitted through TV was said to be wooden, lacking charisma, Bush somehow connected better. And we got Bush.
Our current president, Barack Obama, is a master of performing on television. As Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen complained on Politico this past February, “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View.’”
And today, television—and particularly political TV commercials—are vital to the rise and continuance in office of candidates for, not just for president, but for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, governorships, mayoral positions, and seats in state legislatures and on city councils.
A political era of dueling political TV commercials is firmly here.
Meanwhile, the notion of the “Q Score” or “Q rating” has arrived.
The term “Q Score” was coined in 1963 by Jack Landis who founded a company Marketing Evaluations, Inc. in Roslyn, N.Y. which continues to use the concept as the central measure in its opinion polling and market research work. “Q rating”—defined by Merriam-Webster as a “scale measuring the popularity of a person or thing”—is said by those dictionary people as having its “first known use” in 1977.
They mean roughly the same: they’re measures of likeability. They are the standard for how TV reporters keep their jobs these days, why TV programs are renewed, how products are promoted as well as how would-be holders of the presidency and other offices in the U.S.—and increasingly leaders in nations around the world—are selected.
The basis for “I Like Ike” is now widely applied.
And we are left to wonder what kind of “Q Score” or “Q rating” Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson might have had? What have we lost—and what have we gained?