A Brief History of Political Advertising in the USA

How Television, Radio and the Internet Changed the Face of Political Ads

Trump vs Clinton 2016
Trump vs Clinton 2016. Getty Images

Anyone who has been in the United States during the run-up to a presidential election will know all about political advertising. To say it bombards TV viewers, radio listeners, and anyone who sees a billboard, well it would be a vast understatement. Political advertising gets bigger ever year, monetarily speaking, with an estimated $4 billion spent in the 2012 election year. And in 2016, the fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had the whole world watching aghast.

But where did it stem from, and how has it changed?

In the Beginning, Political Ads Were Scarce.

It was the dawn of television that changed the way politicians reached their audiences. Before that, it was all about getting out and about, meeting the voters, holding town-hall debates and shaking hands. In fact, in 1948 Harry S. Truman covered over 31,000 miles in America, shaking over half a million hands! That was quite the achievement back then, but it would be astonishing today. No candidate would ever put that kind of a commitment into the meet-and-greet when advertising can do a far more effective job.

Presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first politician to really take advantage of this new medium, creating 40 twenty-second TV spots. They were filmed in just one day at Radio City Music Hall, and the content was simple - Eisenhower took questions from the audience, and answered them in his trademarked "no bull" way.

These questions were split into ads, and the campaign entitled "Eisenhower Answers America" ran, and was ultimately responsible for winning him the election.
 

From Nixon and Kennedy to Johnson - the Rise of Negative Campaigning.

After Eisenhower, the power of television could not be doubted. Nixon's television addresses in his presidential campaign, covering the Cold War and government corruption, was very powerful.

However, John F. Kennedy was a man who was born to be on camera, and created over 200 TV ads in his run for the White House. He had grace, was at ease and looked slick and confident. Nixon, on the other hand, was fidgety on camera, had sweat on his brow, and looked troubled. Ironically, when the debates were televised, people thought Kennedy was the clear winner, while those listening on the radio thought the exact opposite.

After the death of Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson ran one of the most powerful ads in political advertising history. Entitled "The Daisy Girl," it showed a young girl playing "he loves me, he loves me not" and when the last petal was plucked, a voice counted down to a nuclear explosion. It was verging on propaganda, but it worked. The tagline "because the stakes are too high for you to stay at home" was the final nail in the coffin for Johnson's liberal competitor, Barry Goldwater. The final tally of 44 states to 6 proved the efficacy of negative campaigning and the reach of TV.

In the decades that followed, up to the present day, most political ads have gone on the attack. A political ad seems to be most powerful when it's saying "don't vote for this candidate" rather than "vote for me because…" McGovern tried to stay away from these tactics, but in the end, he had to run attack ads to gain some momentum.

Reagan used attack ads effectively against Carter, and George H. W. Bush ridiculed his opponent. This style has since become the norm.
 

First Clinton, and then Obama - Political Advertising Reaches New Media

It's fair to say that William J. Clinton was the first presidential candidate to effectively use more of the non-traditional forms of a political ad. Rather than run a campaign comprised solely of TV spots, radio ads, and billboards, he spread his reach much wider. He would appear on daytime TV talk shows and find his way onto channels like MTV. This grabbed the attention of the young voters, and it was connecting with the young people that won him the election in '92, and reelection in '96.

But when it comes to modern political advertising, Barack Obama changed the game. Although he used traditional media outlets and ran some negative spots, his campaign was based on a positive message - Hope.

And, he used the Internet and guerrilla advertising beautifully. Artist Shepard Fairey (featured in this documentary ) created an iconic poster that was seen in streets across America.

The Internet blogs and message boards carried the message of Hope across the nation. Obama's use of the modern methods, plus his youth and charm, completely upstaged his much older, traditional Republican opponent, John McCain. The One Show, among other award shows, recognized the power of this campaign as a breakthrough in modern political advertising. It will no doubt shape the future of political advertising in America, and around the world. But sadly...not the 2016 election cycle that followed. 


Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton - 2016's Historic Battle of the Bizarre
At the time this article was published, the winner of the 2016 presidential race was not yet decided. But, one thing is for certain. 2016 was a game-changer, with Donald Trump's rhetoric giving his campaign millions and millions of dollars in earned media without spending a dime. 2016 has also seen some of the most divisive campaigning in the history of modern political advertising, and has created hate groups, distrust, and an overall feeling of ill-will towards elections. 

Will election campaigning change because of the 2016 campaigns? It has to. But whatever happens, 2016's battle will go down in history as the most bizarre battle of the modern age.