Tuesday, January 23, 2024

1968 set the stage for today’s endless negative campaign ads. (Prof. Heather Hendershot, Washington Post, January 17, 2023)

Evil corrupt RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON started the slide toward sleazy Madison Avenue advertising in political campaigns.  In 2020, running for a mosquito control board seat, Tallahassee dirty tricksters spent $23,000 on "Mosquitos for Justice" political ads attacking little 'ole me as "the biggest liberal in St. Johns County," showing my face on an insect body, with buzzing in the background, telling viewers to "Tell Ed Slavin to Buzz Off."  I can just feel the love from the GQP, developer-Senator TRAVIS JAMES HUTSON, and their associated GQP dirty tricksters. From The Washington Post: 

1968 set the stage for today’s endless negative campaign ads

Richard Nixon’s television ads stoked emotions and leaned into negativity — and it worked

At a GOP primary victory party for Marjorie Taylor Greene in Rome, Ga., in May a big-screen TV shows her campaign ads that often featured Greene with a high-powered weapon. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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The 2022 midterm elections brought the usual deluge of negative media spots. Indeed, each national election seems to bring ads that hit harder below the belt. Particularly notable in November were virulently anti-immigrant ads created by the dark money group “Citizens for Sanity.”These commercials and the resurgent use of crime in campaign ads, along with the fiercely contested issue of abortion rights dominating campaigns, could have made it seem like attack ads had achieved an all-time low in 2022. But did they?

Yes and no. Certainly, political discourse — and old-fashioned notions of rectitude — have shifted over the past half-century. Indeed, when the Nixon White House tapes were released, listeners were shocked not just by the Watergate revelations but also by the president’s use of filthy language. That sort of cursing still had the power to shock 50 years ago but would barely raise an eyebrow at a Donald Trump campaign rally today.

The tolerance for profanity in political discourse may have shifted over time, but campaign ads have always been a dirty business, with messages vacillating between uplifting and nasty. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ad implied that a vote for Barry Goldwater was a vote for nuclear annihilation. Another Johnson ad showed Alabama Klansmen rallying around a burning cross, as a voice-over quoted a Grand Dragon expressing support for Goldwater.

Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign TV ads were even more ferocious. The candidate had rebranded himself as the “New Nixon,” with a fresh personality. Nixon’s ads were relentlessly stimulating and relatively disengaged from facts and figures, proving definitively that a presidential candidate could succeed on TV by showing viewers not what to think but how to feel. That approach had been sporadic in earlier presidential campaigns, but it would become the new normal in the years to come.

Nixon’s spots were created by Gene Jones, who had previously directed a tough Vietnam documentary that the New York Times described as “a sermon on human waste that draws the viewer into a void as objectively as any war movie ever made.” Jones was not an advertising man with experience in conventional persuasive media, but his work stoked emotions, which was what Nixon was going for.

Jones made his ads in the photomontage style, using Nixon as a low-key voice-over. Excerpts from Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” had been distributed to campaign staff as the team worked to tap into the emotional power of gripping, dramatic and often sensationalist images.

A few upbeat spots showcased smiling children and happy workers in feel-good montages of freckled kids in baseball caps that would not have seemed out of place in Coca-Cola ads. More often, though, Nixon’s media team dug its claws into Democratic challenger Vice President Hubert Humphrey by revisiting and amplifying the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police had beaten protesters in the streets, as their victims chanted “The whole world is watching!”

A hit job entitled “Convention” showed Humphrey on the dais in Chicago. Still shots of his face menacingly shaking left and right were immediately followed by similarly unnerving shots of troops in Vietnam, crouching behind sandbags or lying on stretchers. The ad thereby brutally linked Humphrey to the men’s suffering in one deft aesthetic move. Photos of the convention hall alternated with images of violence and despair — rural people stricken by poverty, buildings ablaze from a riot, bleeding antiwar demonstrators.

The music seesawed between celebratory, brass band, oompah-pah music typical of a convention and electronically distorted music that would not have been out of place in a horror film. This little advertising spot recapped the worst moments from Chicago and was skillfully edited to lay street protest, arson, Vietnam and poverty at the feet of the Democratic Party, the convention and Humphrey himself.

The Democratic National Committee was furious and sent protest telegrams to NBC. Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell indignantly defended the ad in public. Twenty years later, Nixon’s creative director of advertising Len Garment said, “It was skillfully done but in terrible taste, particularly the scene showing Humphrey smiling after a scene of Vietnam carnage … We yanked the ad and never put it on again.”

Even NBC was concerned about the ad. Before airing it, they asked Nixon’s admen to “review it,” stopping short of turning down the spot, which would have violated both FCC policy and their own professional norms of fairness and neutrality. But the network knew from experience what viewers were likely to object to as being in “poor taste.” Sure enough, the NBC switchboards were so jammed with protest calls after the single airing of the attack ad that callers who couldn’t get through gave up and instead phoned newspapers to complain.

Nixon’s media team backed down on “Convention,” and yet, the withdrawal of that one spot in no way tempered the salt that Nixon’s campaign continued to pour in Humphrey’s wounds. Another ad, “The First Civil Right,” similarly focused on images of bloodied protesters, police, burning buildings and rubble in the street. The spot even recycled shots of Chicago from “Convention.” “The First Civil Right” is often cited today as Nixon’s most devious campaign ad, as it clearly points to his intention to suppress the antiwar, youth and Civil Rights and Black Power movements, all in the name of his trademark “law and order.”

Stuffy ads for the old Nixon of 1960 had shown him perched on the edge of a desk answering questions about taxes and communism. The “New Nixon,” by contrast, proved that it was better to go for the guts. This approach would take root and expand in American campaigns over the years, to such an extent that it now seems almost quaint to recall that people once thought that “Convention” had gone too far.

The lesson was clear: negative ads centered on emotional impact would be the way forward. Ronald Reagan’s success with his optimistic “morning again in America” refrain was the exception that proved the rule. His successor George H.W. Bush brought the level of discourse right back down again with the racist Willie Horton ad. Nixon may have resigned in disgrace, but his success with negative campaign ads provided a road map for future presidential nominees. He hadn’t modeled how to be a good president, but he had modeled how to weaponize attack ads. Trump’s 2020 ads imposing Joe Biden’s face over protesters and burning street fronts were a page straight out of the “First Civil Right” playbook.

But there is a major difference between the candidate-TV relationship in 1968 and today. In the network era, TV news was aggressively neutral, notwithstanding Nixon’s accusations of “liberal bias.” Today, Trump and his supporters in the Republican Party have Fox News commentators on their side. One 2020 ad even included audio of Fox News’s Sean Hannity contending that Biden supported defunding the police, over visuals of an elderly woman unable to contact a 911 dispatcher as a man broke into her house with a crowbar.

It’s hard to imagine a broadcaster of the Nixon era denouncing a presidential candidate on the air, much less that denunciation being reiterated in an attack ad. While negative campaign ads are not a new phenomenon, a media ecology in which a substantial amount of TV news centers on opinion and vilification is. That means that, on cable news at least, political ads don’t feel much different from the shows they interrupt. It’s all one giant attack ad.

Heather Hendershot is a professor of film and media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her most recent boo

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Deranged Q-Anon fascist Marjorie Taylor Green was another political tourist similar to Billy the Bamboozler wasn't she? She wasn't originally from that district and went in there pouring snake oil all over everyone. These MAGA nut jobs get chased out of one town, contents of the carpet bag leave a trail, and onto the next city to carnival bark for the latest and greatest snake oil. They've got tar and feathers imbeded in the skin.