“Advertising agencies have tried openly to sell presidents since 1952,” writes Joe McGinnis in The Selling of the President 1968, a chronicle of the attempts to package Richard Nixon to make him more palatable to the American people. Typically, that process of promoting candidates has included a dual-pronged approach: bolstering a politician’s image while also tearing down the character and record of his or her opponents. But with the arrival of the 1970s, the tenor of political advertising suddenly shifted, in no small part thanks to Nixon himself. The Watergate scandal did more than end the Nixon presidency. It made the 70s notable as a decade in which political advertising became overwhelmingly positive. The great paradox of one of the worst presidential scandals of the 20th century was that it forced candidates to stop attacking each other and start persuading the nation that they could be trusted.
Before Watergate, campaign ads often had a hard edge. Nixon, for one, employed a 27-year-old media consultant named Roger Ailes to organize his television strategy, while his campaign crafted a series of jarring attack ads directed by Eugene Jones.
The Jones ads, which featured discordant music and disturbing scenes of bloodshed, and cited alarming statistics including a crime rate that was escalating “nine times as fast as population,” helped secure the election for Nixon. By contrast, ads for Humphrey—including one endorsement recorded by an unenthused Frank Sinatra—seemed to fall flat.
The political ads of the 1970s, by contrast, are notable for their general sense of optimism. Forget fearmongering, or vitriolic attack ads. Instead, politicians just wanted to prove they were regular, true-blue Americans who wanted to put the country back on the right path. “Watergate’s biggest impact actually came in 1974,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist, and the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The most oft-heard words were ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity.’ Candidates stressed their normalcy. Younger Democratic politicians bragged about their lack of experience in the Washington cesspool, and promised a revolution in DC.”
Consider one 1974 ad for a young Arkansas politician running for Congress named Bill Clinton. Clinton sipped a beer on the sidewalk and posed next to a tractor, accompanied by a folksy, Johnny Cash-esque jingle riffing on the candidate’s praises:
If you’re paying too much for beans and greens
And forgotten what pork and beefsteak means
There’s a fella here you ought to be listening’ to
Bill Clinton’s ready, he’s fed up too
He’s a lot like me, he’s a lot like you
Bill Clinton wants to get things done
So we’re going to send him to Washington
Despite the catchy ad, Clinton lost his election by four points. Two years later, though, he was elected Arkansas attorney general. That same year, 1976, Jimmy Carter ran for president. A series of deliberately low-key, unsophisticated spots focused on selling the Georgia governor as an antidote to Washington’s scheming and double-talk. “In the beginning, Jimmy Carter’s campaign was a lonely one,” a voiceover says in one ad, accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack and a sequence of scenes showing Carter shaking hands with countless smiling Americans. “But through the months, more and more people recognized him as a new leader, a man who would change the way this country was run. A competent man, who can make our government open and efficient. But above all, an understanding man, who can make ours a government of the people again.”
“Carter was really talking about fixing politics, and having trust in government again,” says Patrick Meirick, director of the Political Communications Center at the University of Oklahoma. “He was more or less a straight shooter, and he promised never to tell a lie to the American people. Some of the ads were almost like cinema verité, and the style of the voiceover became more down to earth.”
Carter’s ads focused almost exclusively on his folksy roots, and his relatable history as a farmer and a Naval officer. “The 1976 election is probably unique in American history as one in which the focus of attention was not on the performance of the incumbent president, but rather on the character of the challenger,” the historian Michael Barone told the Museum of the Moving Image for the exhibition “The Living Room Candidate.” President Ford’s campaign also chose to focus primarily on the “new kind of president” residing in the White House, and the era of relative peace and prosperity that was settling in. “That healing process has been I think one of the big accomplishments of the administration,” Ford told a roomful of teenagers in one ad, which called Ford, “A kind and decent man, who’s making us proud again.”
Both campaigns went to great lengths to stress simplicity, carefully crafting messages that, ironically, flaunted their apparent lack of artifice. Even Ford’s attack ads against Carter featured Americans on the street expressing their nebulous doubts about Carter’s background, rather than concrete attacks on his record. The message was clear: Americans were to be listened to, not manipulated.
“The announcers of the 1960s had this overblown, stentorian style of narration,” says Meirick. “But Carter sounded like somebody’s grandpa, or a country preacher. The focus on personality was important.”
Carter’s positive sales pitch had some short-term impact: In 1979, a study funded by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee concluded that negative political ads could frequently be counterproductive, walking “a fine line between making [their] point and turning off the voter.”
But by 1980, both the disillusionment with politics that followed Watergate and the sense of enthusiasm for simple, straight-shooting candidates were on the wane. Carter’s administration was widely seen as a failure, and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, had plenty of avenues for attack. “With the country in turmoil over the American hostages in Iran, double-digit inflation and interest rates, and the Soviets in Afghanistan, the campaign turned hard negative again,” Sabato says. The era of warm-and-fuzzy political salesmanship was over.
In the 40 years since 1976, the amounts of money sunk into television advertising in presidential campaigns have grown exponentially larger. But the influence of many of the methods that were tried and tested in the 1970s can still be felt today. The cult of personality became crucial to a canddiate’s chances thanks to the prominence of television, which meant politicians frequently had to focus as much on image as they did on issues. And 20 years after the end of Carter’s presidency, another southern politician found himself adopting the same reassuring tones after yet another president had fallen from grace.
“In 2000, George W. Bush’s ads sounded a little bit like Carter’s,” says Meirick. “He did some direct address ads like Carter did, looking at the camera, sitting on a couch, talking about restoring faith in government. He didn’t go right out and say, ‘I would never sleep with my intern,’ but there was an indirect allusion. He was trying to give a sense of himself as a trustworthy person.”
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