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Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising






Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Packaging the Presidency: A History and Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising. – Oxford University Press, 1996. – 608 p.








In the years since the original publication of Packaging the Presidency the amount of money spent on political advertising, the impact with which it is credited, and the amount of news time devoted to discussing it have all increased. There is no reason to believe that the actual power of the ads themselves has been either muted or magnified as a result. Ads remain better able to reinforce than to create new attitudes. Indeed the much heralded Reagan ad campaign of 1984 was an exercise in the rhetoric of reinforcement.

What has changed is the relationship between advertising and news. That change is the subject of the book's new introduction. Altered as well has been the willingness of advertisers to air material that invites false inferences. The year 1988 saw a marked increase in such ads. In the absence of counterinformation from the opposing campaign, such inferences can and do lodge in the public. But that fact is not new; 1988 simply provided a more dramatic instance of the power of unanswered charges than we had had available previously in the history of televised presidential politics.


This edition of Packaging the Presidency brings the history of presidential advertising through the 1988 campaign.


April 1991






Chapter One Chapter Broadsides to Broadcasts

Chapter Two 1952: The Election of a Popular Hero

Chapter Three 1956; The Reelection of a Popular Hero

Chapter Four I960: Competence, Catholicity, and the Candidates,

Chapter Five 1964: Goldwater vs. Goldwater

Chapter Six 1968: The Competing Pasts of Nixon and Humphrey

Chapter Seven 1972: I he President vs. The Prophet

Chapter Eight 1976: Integrity, Incumbency, and the Impact of Watergate

Chapter Nine 1980: "I'm Qualified to Be President and You're Not"

Chapter Ten 1984: Presidential Prerogatives; Presidential Preemptions

Chapter Eleven 1988: The Pit and the Paradise





Broadsides to Broadcasts





Never before in a presidential campaign have televised ads sponsored by a major party candidate lied so blatantly as in the campaign of 1988.

Television ads of previous presidential contenders have, to be sure, seized upon votes cast by the opposition candidate and sundered them from context, resurrected political positions from the distant past and interpreted legislative moves as sweeping endorsements of unpopular positions. And, in eras gone by, the penny press, which didn't even feign political neutrality, published scurrilous assaults on would-be presidents–albeit to far more limited audiences than those reached by televised broadcasts. But in the era of mass visual communication, major party candidates, until 1988, assumed that outright lying in an ad would create an outcry from the press, a devastating counter-assault from the other side and a backlash from an incensed electorate.

That assumption no longer governs. lake, for example, this ad from the Bush campaign: The picture shows a pool of sludge and pollutants near a sign reading, "Danger/Radiation Hazard/No Swimming". The text indicts Michael Dukakis for failing to clean up Boston Harbor. But the sign shown in the ad has, in fact, nothing to do with the Massachusetts governor or his record. Instead, it warns swimmers to stay away from waters close to a nuclear repair space.

Here's another from the Bush image mill: A procession of convicts circles through a revolving gate and marches toward the nation's living rooms. The ad invites the inference–false–that 268 first-degree murderers were furloughed by Dukakis to rape and kidnap. In fact only one first-degree murderer, William Horton, escaped furlough in Massachusetts and committed a violent crime–although others have done so under other furlough programs, including the one that continues to be run by the federal government and the one run by California under the stewardship at Ronald Reagan.

This is only one precedent for such visual demagoguery in the history of electronic presidential campaigning. In 1968, during the Richard Nixon-Hubert Humphrey contest, the Republicans aired a wordless sequence of images as "Hot Time in the Old Town" played in the background. The images: Humphrey smiling; carnage in Vietnam. Humphrey smiling; Appalachian poverty. Humphrey smiling; bloodshed outside the Democratic convention. The inference invited was that Humphrey either approved of, or was responsible for, the unsettling images juxtaposed with his own jovial one.

But when the 1968 ad sparked protests, the Republicans quickly withdrew it. No such protest greeted either the Boston Harbor or furlough spots. An electorate numbed by the negative campaigns of 1986–and a press corps preoccupied more with ad strategy than content–simply took the visual demagoguery in stride.

Thus encouraged, the campaigns moved beyond false implications to direct distortion. The Dukakis campaign joined in with an ad claiming that Bush cast "the tie-breaking Senate vote to cut Social Security benefits/1 when instead, Bush had voted to eliminate a cost-of-living adjustment in benefits, thus eroding purchasing power but not diminishing the actual level of the checks.

From the Republicans came a portrait of the Democratic candidate looking somewhat silly as he rides in a tank and thus attempts to dramatize his support for a strong defense. "Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we have developed," says the ad. Untrue. The Democrat favors the Trident II submarine and the D5 missile and the SSN21 Sea wolf attack submarine among others, "He opposed the Stealth bomber…," says the ad. Another falsehood. Dukakis supported Stealth.

Has the electorate lost its sense of fair play? Certainly earlier candidates of the electronic era feared that they might forfeit the election if they offended voter's notions of fairness and honesty. Even in 1964 which witnessed the most negative electronic campaign prior to 1988, caution pervaded the politicking. A 1964 Democratic ad highlighting the Ku Klux Klan's endorsement of Barry Goldwater was shelved, unaired, when Gold-water rejected the Kian's embrace. Evidence was produced to support claims. To document Goldwater's position on Social Security, one ad showed five corroborating sources.

Ads dramatizing Goldwater's stand repeated words actually uttered by the candidate. Goldwater had, in fact, said that he wouldn't mind if the "Eastern seaboard were sawed off" and that the nuclear bomb was "merely another weapon". The famous "daisy" commercial which juxtaposed a child counting with a bomb exploding» certainly played on voters’ fears of a Goldwater presidency, but the ad didn’t even need to mention his name; the electorate's disposition to believe that the candidate was trigger-happy had been well-fanned by his Republican opponents as they vied for the GOP nomination in the spring.

Comforted by such examples from recent decades, I concluded the last edition of this book with the assurance that the public had little to fear from distortions in TV and other ads. I was wrong.

Just as the Battle of Agincourt demonstrated the vulnerability of French armor to the British longbow, the 1988 campaign showed the deceptive power of visual association and the weaknesses of the protection provided by debates, news broadcasts, counteracting advertising and press coverage,

Part of the fault lies with the Dukakis campaign which ignored the Bush attacks until they had so pervaded the attitudes of the electorate that Dukakis had plummeted from front-runner to also-ran, Part of the fault resides with reports more disposed to discussing advertising strategy than substance or accuracy. Part of the fault resides with a public more inclined to gather political information from inadvertent exposure to ads than from news accounts, attention to candidate's speeches or examination of position papers.

Only in the last half of October did Democratic ads attempt to clean up a campaign environment so awash in distortions that Bush's portrayal of Boston Harbor seemed clean by comparison. Without counter-advertising by Dukakis, or counterevidence in news or clarification in debates, the electorate had no reason to doubt the inference that was invited by the Bush furlough ad.

Only those who had closely followed campaign speeches and position papers, as well as broadcast and print news accounts, would know that the facts provide absolutely no support for the implication that a President Dukakis would usurp the rights of the states and furlough first-degree murderers to mug or murder Reagan Democrats. Among those little-known facts are that: only one first-degree murderer furloughed by the Massachusetts program, William Horton, had committed a violent crime; that the typical furlough jumper was an unarmed robber, not a murderer; that 72 of the escapees hadn't escaped at all--they had simply returned more than two hours late; that a comparable federal program continues and furloughed no less than 14,000 drug dealers during the Reagan Administration; that programs comparable to Dukakis's existed in other states (including under the Reagan administration in California) and that both the crime rate and the murder rate in Massachusetts are low for an industrial state.

So Dukakis could have knocked the GOP ad for a loop. But by refusing in the debates to rebut the distortions, and by waiting until October to respond in ads, Dukakis squandered two of the three means available to protect the public from deception in political ads.

For its part, the press, the third potential safeguard» spent much of this time focused on revealing the strategy rather than the inaccuracy of the ads. News has the potential to underscore false claims and inferences instead of undercutting them. In fact, by replaying ads in reports that examine strategy instead of substance, news can legitimize distortions and give them free air time. Only when the Bush tank ad rambled into the World Series did its obvious distortion of Dukakis's defense posture prompt ABC, and then the other networks, the Washington Post and the other major papers to set the record straight.

But even if the news outlets had been more vigilant, news alone cannot adequately protect the public from deception. Single news segments cannot erase dozens of exposures to a sludge-clotted Boston Harbor or the seemingly endless procession of scotfree murderers. Besides, most viewers in key states will have seen the ads repeatedly, whereas a far smaller number will see the single correction in network news stories. A smaller number still will thumb back from the comics and sports pages to the articles unmasking the distortions.

Nor can the networks be called upon to screen out deceptive political advertising even if current bills to reform political advertising ultimately become law. Were the product a Plymouth and not a president, Bush's claim to leadership on the INF treaty, his assertion that Dukakis opposed the Stealth bomber and the implication that Dukakis freed 268 William Hortons would not have aired. Nor would Dukakis's claim that Bush voted to cut Social Security. Whereas the networks protect the consumer from distortions in product ads, the need to protect a candidate's right to free speech means that stations and networks can't reject deceptive presidential ads.

How then, can the electorate be protected? The best available defense seems to be the vigilance of the opposing candidate and party. But, as this campaign has shown, a candidate's access to news, counter-advertising and debates protects the public only if the attacked candidate moves quickly and strategically. Moreover, the protections of news and debates presuppose that the attacked candidate is comfortable with personally rebutting untruths and counter attacking. Neither seemed to come naturally to Michael Dukakis.

There is also the real risk that a counter-attack may simply legitimize false claims and magnify their impact. It can also reduce the campaign to a shouting match in which each candidate calls the other a liar, leaving the electorate disillusioned and confused. That was where the campaign of 1988 wound up. It's also where future campaigns are likely to be headed unless this country can discover among the ranks of its politicians a pair of candidates self-assured enough to campaign on the facts.


Chapter One. Chapter Broadsides to Broadcasts


“In 1888, Scottish scholar and statesman James Bryce observed that during election campaigns in the U.S. "For three months, processions, usually with brass bands» flags, badges, crowds of cheering spectators, are the order of the day and night from end to end of the country/' Such business» Bryce continued, "pleases the participants by making them believe they are effecting something; it impresses the spectators by showing them that other people are in earnest, it strikes the imagination of those who in country hamlets read of the doings in the great city. In short, it keeps up the 'boom,' and an American election is held to be, truly or falsely, largely a matter of booming".1

The "booming" Bryce described is as alien to modern Americans as it was to Bryce. Most of us now experience presidential campaigns ш the privacy of our living rooms, and little more than half the population emerges from them on election day to vote. But substitute "political advertising" as the subject of Bryce's observation, change the idiom to modern English, and David Broder could comfortably open a column with the resulting claims: "For three months political advertising is the order of the day and night from coast to coast. These ads please those who have conceived and produced them by making them believe they are effecting something; they impress the public by showing their candidates to be earnest people; they strike the imagination of those in country towns who vicariously meet the candidates and experience the campaign through the excitement of the advertising. This advertising creates the “boom" and an American election is held to be, correctly or not, largely a matter of booming,"

This was not the plan of the founders of the Republic, who would have been shocked both by the booming of Bryce's processions, bands, and banners and by the political advertising campaigns that are their heirs. Additionally» our founders would have been surprised by our almost universal right to vote, the active and insistent role of political…"


The full text of the book can be found at bookstores, e-bookstores and libraries.


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See also:

How to Develop a Successful Advertising Plan

The Essentials of Advertising

Measuring Advertising Effectiveness

Books on Advertising

Books on PR

Books on Mass Media