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Ad Wars: A Long History with an Uncertain Future

For television viewers, the end of the 2016 campaign meant an end to political advertisements which seeped into email inboxes, social media news feeds, and television screens. During a campaign defined by polarization and personal attacks, it is not surprising that both the Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Republican challenger Donald Trump overwhelmingly turned to negative advertisements to articulate their messages of why the other lacked the qualities needed in our next president. Political advertisements constituted only one component of the broader campaign, but they provide a window into the broader values and strategies of the campaigns and the ways in which both sides used history to promote their vision of the future.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a clear and calculated sense of history in its advertising strategy. By bringing in Monique Corzilius Luiz, who played the young girl in the famous “Daisy” advertisement from 1964, Clinton explicitly linked her argument about Trump’s lack of presidential temperament to the argument President Lyndon Johnson made about Barry Goldwater, a Republican on the fringe of the party who, like Trump, also launched a grassroots campaign to upset the party establishment. Johnson’s advertising team observed the divisive debates that pervaded the tumultuous Republican primary campaign, during which the conservative senator from Arizona pulled off a stunning upset to win the party’s nomination from the moderate frontrunner, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Capitalizing on these previously voiced concerns over Goldwater’s “extremism,” Johnson’s campaign created a powerful caricature of the Republican nominee as an unreasonable, impulsive leader whose fanaticism might have led the country into nuclear war. The famous Daisy commercial, in which a young girl picked flower petals in the midst of an exploding atomic bomb, aired just one time. The advertisement never mentioned Goldwater’s name, but its message powerfully reinforced the Johnson’s campaign message: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.” Although President Johnson pulled the ad after the controversy its negativity aroused, the image became powerfully etched in the public imagination.

Subsequent presidential contenders across the political spectrum, notably Richard

, Ronald Reagan, and now more recently Hillary Clinton, expanded efforts to deploy political advertising to shape the media narrative of their campaigns. As a result, over the past fifty years, political advertising has become ingrained the American democratic process, and consultants remind potential candidates about the need to win the “ad wars” to win the election.

But Donald Trump’s successful campaign has challenged this “accepted truth” of American electoral politics. From the beginning of the campaign, Donald Trump eschewed spending money on advertising, using his ability to grab headlines with his unpredictable and brash performances and tweets. He entertained crowds and captured free media attention with his bombastic reality TV-style performances. Notably, his advertisements also lacked the polished production skills of seasons politicos like Clinton.

Nevertheless, the advertisements he did deploy—whether on digital platforms, in sound bites on news programs, or on television screens—also reiterate a historical message: one articulated by Richard Nixon in 1968. “America is in trouble today not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed,” Nixon explained in a voiceover as viewers watched powerful scenes of violence and distress almost fifty years ago. Blaming the war in Vietnam, protests on college campuses, and the unrest in cities on the liberal establishment, Richard Nixon then promised a return to greatness very similar to that message espoused by his Republican successor. And, most notably, the audience for this message was the same: disgruntled white voters angry at the gains made by minorities and women. Trump hearkens back to a historical period of “greatness” in which the white working class had high wages and low mortgages, a time in history created by suppressing opportunities for a portion of the population—especially women, African Americans, and Latinos.

Both this message and the style in which it was delivered matter, especially in the wake of Trump’s stunning upset on Tuesday.

Trump capitalized on his ability to control his own message in free venues: on cable news shows, talk shows, Reddit, and Twitter. Why pay for ads, he argued, when he can shape the media narrative and get his message out to his supporters for free. Clinton capitalized on this advertising tradition and her well-oiled production team, armed with the best political minds of the Democratic Party, used artfully crafted television advertisements that used Trump’s strategy directly against him.

In the end, Trump’s tactic saved his campaign millions of dollars. But, perhaps more significantly, his decision to go “rogue” and reject the increasingly sophisticated and polished advertising campaigns style run by Clinton became just another way to fight against tradition and pitch himself as a political outsider fighting the establishment—the Republican Party, the mainstream media, and even accepted campaign wisdom donned by the political professionals.

In 1956, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson critiqued a political process that had increasingly relied on “shows, slogans, and arts of advertising.” While over the past fifty years, advertising has become ingrained in the American political process, perhaps the 2016 election demonstrates how a new type of political show, rooted in the self-branding of reality television, can compete with this political tradition of polished productions.

Kathryn Cramer Brownell is an assistant professor in American history at Purdue University.  She is the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), which examines the institutionalization of entertainment in American politics during the twentieth century and the rise of the celebrity presidency.