Advertising and Decadence

It's not all downhill for political ads.

One truism everyone can agree on about this year's presidential election is that the tenor of its advertisements was extremely unlovely--divisive, bitter, negative. Dole's campaign whined in September that 90 percent of Bill Clinton's ads were negative. The Orlando Sentinel opined that "the ferocity of insults hurled across party lines has steadily intensified to such hateful levels that many voters have been searching for alternative political leadership." Like many complaints about modern America, these laments hark back to a more mannered, moderate, modulated era, when candidates touted their own virtues, not their opponents' vices.

With those complaints ringing in my ears, I took the opportunity on a casual visit to the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills to check out an anthology tape of old presidential political ads. What I found surprised me. But the impression left by the museum's selections was confirmed by later TV specials offering more examples of old presidential ads: It turns out that the modulated era is today. The presidential political ads of 1996 hold up well in many respects compared to those of the '50s, '60s, and early '70s.

Last election season's negative ads at least broadcast specific gripes--Clinton's record on drugs, Dole's on taxes. In the old days, negative sideswipes tended to be more insidiously suggestive. A case in point: the famous Lyndon Johnson ad showing the charming young girl (you know she's innocent because she can't even count to 10 properly) being nuked. Everyone's seen, or at least heard of, that part. What often doesn't get mentioned is the even stranger concluding voice-over, in which LBJ (or a deeply Southern soundalike) recites portentous poetry, complete with an Auden rip-off. We need, the voice tells us, to "make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." While it's true no politician today is apt to try to crib from one of the modern masters of poetry, neither is anyone apt to suggestively smear their opponent as Dr. Strangelove in a senator suit.

Nor does a modern candidate feel obliged, as Sen. Hubert Humphrey did during his failed presidential run in '68, to run ads that make clear that he supports "the nonviolent majority--these are the people whose voice I want to be." While the pundits who love to decry negative ads portray a political culture that has coarsened terribly, one must admit something has changed for the better now that such a self-defense seems ludicrous and beside the point. The purveyors of public domestic violence are now well-understood to have no champions among major-party political candidates. Hearing Humphrey trumpet such a curious and obvious virtue, one is reminded of the old Mad magazine gag where a cookie brand's main selling point is, "Nobody's ever died from eating our brand."

In terms of virulent nastiness, some people complained that Clinton's ads ignored Dole veep candidate Jack Kemp, instead continually linking Dole to the much-hated Newt Gingrich as if he were Dole's running mate. Those linkages at least had to do with Gingrich's policies--or in the case of Medicare, somewhat twisted interpretations of actual policies. Compare that with the Humphrey ad jabbing at Nixon's running mate, Spiro Agnew. The words "Agnew for Vice President" floated on the screen while voices laughed, and laughed, and laughed. "This would be funny if it weren't so serious," the voice-over intoned.

Those who complain about negative ads claim to want a more sophisticated and moderate political discourse. At the very least, however, today's negative ads are about politics: They treat the voter as intelligent, relatively informed, and caring about specific public policies. (It goes without saying, of course, that they try to spin things their candidate's way.) Compare this to the allegedly good ol' days when politicians like Eisenhower and Kennedy were sold with delightful cartoons and sing-songy jingles, making no mention whatever of policies or politics. No national politician could get away with that sort of silliness today, however much more charming it might seem than grainy, artificially black-and-white footage of Clinton goofily offering to try to smoke pot again.

If this year's political ads played on fears--which some most certainly did, especially those dealing with immigration and Medicare--they at least directly connected the fears to specific policies of the opponent: Dole's votes against increasing border agents, Clinton's policies allowing aliens with criminal records to obtain citizenship, Republican attempts to reform Medicare.

In the heady, nervous, crazy days of America circa 1968-72, however, the citizenry's fears were far more apocalyptic. Nowadays, politicians promise that bad policy results will ensue if their opponents win ("Dole: Wrong in the Past, Wrong for Our Future," "If Clinton Wins, We Lose"). In the late '60s and early '70s, politicians suggested that if you didn't vote for them, all social order would collapse and you'd be attacked or blown up by radicals--probably black radicals, at that.

Nixon's ads featured the ominous slogan, "This time vote like your whole world depended on it," after images of screaming hippies, fire, bloody bodies, public mayhem, soldiers, grenades, and bayonets. And George Wallace--there was a politician whose ad mavens knew how to play on fear. Witness his stunning trio of "Why are more and more Americans turning to Governor Wallace?" ads. One features a shot of the back of a school bus slowly dragging away into the far, far distance. One asks, "Why are Americans afraid to walk the streets at night?" and shows a noirish shot of a pair of fine feminine gams click-clacking down a sidewalk, when the streetlight is suddenly, terrifyingly shattered. A third says, "Open a little business and see what might happen." Then, a Molotov cocktail bursts through the window of Village TV Repair, setting it ablaze. One might ask why a states' rights man like Wallace is playing mostly to local issues like street crime; but one has to admit that, in the old days, politicians knew how to be divisive, negative, and play on fears.

Political ads of yore did have some elements that seem more charming, less media-savvy and calculated than today's ads: Five-minute-long shots of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy sitting in a drawing room talking politics, complete with unedited gaffes, staring at the floor, and running hands through hair. Barry Goldwater directly addressing the worst character accusations against him, such as the idea that he was rashly imprudent. Kennedy actually discussing color blindness in government as the "one outstanding moral issue" in the campaign. And those cartoons and slogans are cute. Who can forget the song-poem to Adlai Stevenson (and against Dwight Eisenhower), sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum"? "A soldier's mind is always bound/To think in terms of battlegrounds/But Stevenson/Civilian, son/Will lead us 'til the peace is won."

Yet the entire tenor of American public life was far more apocalyptic and frightened then, especially in the late '60s. For a few reasons: nuclear terror at its height; explosive student unrest and violence; street crime beginning to hit scary levels. In many ways, fixating on the alleged nastiness of politics today is blindness in the service of self-congratulation--you are pure enough to recognize how dirty things are now.

The conventional wisdom was wrong about this year's presidential ads. With their greater emphasis on information and less on cheerleading and vague fearmongering, they had a lot to be proud of--especially compared to their predecessors of decades past.

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