Sigh. Presidential Campaign Commercials Really Were Better then, Weren’t They?

The Museum of the Moving Image has a fantastic collection of television advertising from presidential campaigns, including this one, for Kennedy in 1960:

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This is the same one used in an episode of Mad Men last year. Mark Greif, in his otherwise meh takedown of the show for the London Review of Books (his substantive criticisms of the show could equally have been applied to The Sopranos, a show he seems to like, and the rest of his beef seems to revolve around the fact that Jon Hamm is no Cary Grant, which is, OK, true, but then again, nobody is) has some good things to say about the advertising of the era:

It was Eisenhower who in 1952 became the first American presidential candidate to use a television commercial. ‘To think that an old soldier should come to this!’ the former Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe moaned at the filming. By 1960, two long Eisenhower terms later, television and advertising had become essential to the modern electoral campaign. Everyone remembers the young and handsome John F. Kennedy’s triumph in televised debates with his rival Richard Nixon. According to legend, Nixon lost the 1960 election by his refusal to put on makeup before the broadcast. One of the more subtly interesting moments in Mad Men occurs when we see an actual Kennedy TV spot, pulled from the archives, screened in the boardroom of the show’s fictional Madison Avenue firm. (The firm, Sterling Cooper, is working for Nixon, just as they work on cigarette campaigns and everything else we know to be bad for you.) The Kennedy commercial gives one of the few genuine shocks of the series. ‘Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!’ chirrups the jingle, set to a big band tune. Cartoon hands hold up ‘Kennedy’ signs in an arty collage that places the candidate’s chiselled face among celebrities, names of US states, doodles, and lines of eager voters.

This real commercial was pure ‘brand’ manipulation. It had nothing to say about policies or issues, or even about Kennedy’s personality, biography and character. We just don’t see political ads like this anymore. The shock, of course, is that advertising has become somewhat more modest across the span of fifty years. We no longer invest so much in mere association – it has at least been put in its place. John McCain may be launching ugly spots with increasingly crude and mendacious claims about his opponent; Barack Obama’s media teams will certainly spotlight their man’s high cheekbones and trim good looks, even when he’s talking up his tax plans. But cheerful decoration alone isn’t thought to sway the electorate as it did in 1960, and coded messages can’t make an end-run around the conscious mind to elicit audiences’ submerged opinions.

1 Comment on Sigh. Presidential Campaign Commercials Really Were Better then, Weren’t They?

  1. Did you notice that on the dvd extras, Mad Men executives take credit for writing this jingle? Doesn’t that seem wrong? They clearly did not.

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