Political Advertising: The 1964 Presidential Race

Specs: Go to the website http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/ and choose an election year. Your task for the blog is to use our readings and lecture material to generate an insightful discussion on the meaning behind the meaning of each candidate’s campaign. Questions that you might consider include: in what light do the ads cast the candidate? What connotations are used to what associative effect? What implications are made about the opponent and how (move beyond the literal on this one)? What demographic do the ads seem to target? What demographics are ignored? Is the aim of the campaign (or individual ad) to lure in new voters, swing undecideds or reinforce supporters? Simply pick a question (or questions), devise an argument and see if you can bring insight to these campaigns.

In this analysis, I apply Franz and Ridout’s findings that political advertising tends to be most effective on “those lower in political information” (485) – people who aren’t well informed about various candidates’ platforms (Deman, February 5 2015) – as well as undecided voters, moderates, and some partisans (typically Democrats) (Franz and Ridout, 485). I use these findings to explore possible target audiences, defined by Franz and Ridout’s political-demographic categories, in three ads from the 1964 American presidential race: Barry Goldwater’s “Punchcard” ad (no. 1), Lynden Johnson’s “Daisy” ad (no. 2), and Johnson’s “Achievements” ad (no. 1) (http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1964). My analysis focuses primarily on “Achievements,” as a refreshing departure from the typical mudslinging smear campaign.

Both Johnson’s “Daisy” attack ad and Goldwater’s “Punchcard” attack ad resort to logical fallacies such as oversimplification, generalization, either/or dichotomies, and ad hominem; both also appeal to pathos (which could be counted as another fallacy, an appeal to pity), with less emphasis on ethos and none on logos (if we think of logos as solid data rather than generalizations – Johnson’s “Achievements” ad, by contrast, cites specific motions Johnson passed, along with the dates on which he passed them). As is typical of mudslinging, these fallacies and the focus on emotion create spin without having to resort to vigorous analysis and constructive political debate (much like the ridiculous but successful campaigns that have consistently annihilated Stephen Harper’s opponents).

Target audiences for the “Punchcard” ad and the “Daisy” ad are presumably politically uninformed voters, both moderates and partisans; politically informed partisans might also appreciate the ads’ mockery of the opposition, although they likely wouldn’t be basing their (entire) decision at the ballot box on this type of ad. (I say “entire” because of our discussion in lecture today about the negative associations and residual effects created by smear campaigns, even in viewers who are politically informed and can see the ads’ fallacies.)

Johnson’s positive, platform-based “Achievements” ad relies on ethos and logos, with a generous helping of pathos thrown in. It begins with 2 minutes of concentrated pathos, as Johnson establishes his ethos by riding JFK’s coattails. However, the ad then switches tactics, cataloguing a list of Johnson’s “promises kept” with the specific dates that these motions were passed (2:00). (It of course enacts this transition by discussing “promises” made during JFK’s presidency that Johnson subsequently passed into law.)

“Achievements” portrays Johnson as a leader who unites the House of Congress (“The President sought and won support from both parties in passing a bill that fulfilled our founding fathers’ commitment that every American have his constitutional right” 2:30) and, moreover, acts as a mediator within the country (railroad dispute, 3:20), similarly to Theodore Roosevelt (who brokered a deal between coal miners and coal companies, ending the Coal Strike of 1902). He isn’t just a fat-cat on Capitol Hill, the ad claims – he gets things done legislatively, keeps commerce running smoothly, keeps the country safe from foreign attacks, and cares about the average Joe; Congress has never been so united and so efficient (2:30 – 4:10). In fact, Johnson is more or less portrayed as a beneficent monarch, ironically enough for the “Land of the Free.” This is especially ironic given the ad’s references to the “free world” (1:15), the “founding fathers” (2:30), and the American constitution (2:30), and the implicit comparison of Johnson to Roosevelt. As was discussed in class, despite the claims that the US, in particular, makes of being a democracy, it seems as though people like to feel that they’re voting for an individual leader rather than a committee. And arguments, even fallacious ones, that develop or destroy a celebrity persona are thus very effective in politics.

The target audience for “Achievements” may be the undecided moderate or the politically uninformed voter. This ad could be trying to garner the support of politically uninformed viewers by informing them about Johnson’s achievements – and trying to pre-determine what they get informed of before their opinions solidify, as we discussed with regard to the Conservative smear campaign against Michael Ignatieff. In “Achievements,” the focus is on forming a persona for Johnson. In fact, as noted above, this persona involves co-operation between Democrats and Republicans; this is ethos-building at the expense of ad hominem “arguments,” and arguably precisely through the exclusion of ad hominem fallacy from the ad. We could even posit a “reverse ad hominem” approach that aims to develop the myth (in Barthes’ sense) of a fairytale presidency, although that would be outside the scope of this assignment.

Alternatively, it’s possible the target audience for “Achievements” is a politically informed demographic – as Franz and Ridout point out, political advertising tends to be less effective on people who have the “facts” of the situation at hand, and can therefore critique the ads’ messages (if we endorse the notion that any piece of information is an unbiased fact, especially when it is mediated in a “two-step flow” (Franz and Ridout, 467)). Ethos and logos would seem to have a better chance of convincing such an audience, who would be able to unravel the usual pitiful logic of attack ads. This isn’t to say I think ads that point out the opposition’s shortcomings are inherently weak debate – but if you’re going to make an ad that criticizes someone, make the criticisms legitimate. Although this ad isn’t necessarily any more “honest” or ethically sound than the other two, it does at least change the tone of the conversation into something more constructive than a smear campaign.