The United States is focused this week on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the most telegenic of U.S. presidents. Indeed, some of the reports this week describe Kennedy as America’s “first TV president.”
In fact, the coupling of TV and the U.S. presidency came a decade before after a Madison Avenue advertising man, Rosser Reeves, approached Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and convinced him to use TV commercials in his run for the presidency that year.
Four years earlier, Reeves tried to interest the then Republican candidate, former New York Governor Thomas Dewey, in this approach. But Dewey “did not buy the idea of lowering himself to the commercial environment of a toothpaste ad,” as Robert Spero related in his 1980 book The Duping of the American Voter, Dishonesty & Deception in Presidential Television Advertising.
The Eisenhower commercials were coordinated with the campaign’s slogan—“I Like Ike.” Indeed, one spot featured a song especially written by Irving Berlin titled “I Like Ike.”
There was an early understanding by Reeves that television best communicates feeling and emotion, not information. TV, as media theorists later described it, is a “non-cognitive medium.” Thus the Eisenhower ads—stressing Eisenhower’s likeability – and projecting feeling and emotion, made the strongest use of the TV medium.
The intellectual Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson, tried to counter the blitz of 15-second Eisenhower spots. Stevenson embarked on a series of half-hour TV presentations, reiterating and expanding on themes he struck in his convention acceptance speech. These lectures, essentially, didn’t work.
With television, as Joe McGinniss wrote in his seminal 1969 The Selling of the President, “it matters less” that a politician “does not have ideas. His personality is what the viewers want to share. The TV candidate…is measured…not against a standard of performance established by two centuries of democracy—but against Mike Douglas. How well does he handle himself? Does he mumble, does he twitch, does he make me laugh? Do I feel warm inside? Style becomes substance. The medium is the massage and the masseur gets the votes.”
The American TV talk show personality Mike Douglas is dead but the dynamic McGinniss described continues—indeed has expanded politically in America and beyond.
As observed Richard Reeves in a 1980 television report, “ABC News Closeup: Lights, Cameras…Politics,” realizing TV “transmits feelings and emotion better than it transmits information…media consultants tried to motivate Americans to vote the same way that they were motivated to buy toothpaste: with little entertainments.”
He cited as an early example of this the infamous spot put together in 1964 by Tony Schwartz for Lyndon Johnson. A little girl plucks petals from a daisy, counting up to nine and then a man’s voice counts down from ten to zero—and suddenly the TV screen fills with the super-scary footage of a hydrogen bomb exploding, and Johnson’s voice states: “The stakes are too high…We must either love each other or we must die.”
Schwartz later wrote in his book The Responsive Chord: “The task of a media specialist is not to reveal a candidate’s stand on issues, so much as to help communicate those personal qualities of a candidate that are likely to win votes.” This spot and the strong emotion it was designed to impart were aimed at leaving the viewer feeling that Lyndon Johnson was a person of responsibility, and his opponent, Barry Goldwater, something else.
Further, with this spot, the TV political attack ad, the emotionally-laden negative political TV commercial, had arrived front-and-center in the U.S.—to become a mainstay of American election advertising.
By 1980, with the ability to perform on television having become a necessary attribute of a presidential candidate, the Republican Party chose an actor with plenty of TV experience to run for president: Ronald Reagan. Reagan had been governor of California but, importantly, for eight years before that he had been a TV performer, host of General Electric Theatre, after his Hollywood career hit the skids.
In the eight years he was president, polls reflected many Americans disliking Reagan’s policies but a substantial number “liked” Reagan—based on the image he projected through television.
It had come to a point at which Robert Weimer, a columnist for the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, observed in 1980: “Why bother with the arduous, uncertain and expensive process of casting ballots at all? Why not simply put presidential candidates into a head-to-head, prime-time competition on election night and let the ratings decide the contest….It’s not hard to understand why the candidates have settled on television as their main mode of communication. It reaches the most people with the most impact, even if it does tend to sell only gross attributes. Audience perception of a smile, for example, can determine the outcome of a presidential race…Television is essentially a medium that appeals more to spinal than cerebral receptors. The message that gets through is spare: Ronald Reagan is affable.”
The system of electing and supporting presidents largely on the basis of their TV performances can, of course, be very unsettling.
Consider what was widely described as a great problem for Al Gore when he ran for president against George W. Bush in 2000: most folks would rather, it was said, go out for a beer with Bush than Gore. Gore’s persona as transmitted through TV was said to be wooden, lacking charisma. Bush somehow connected better. And America got Bush.
The current U.S. president, Barack Obama, is excellent at presenting himself on TV, a key to his two election victories. Meanwhile, as Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen complained on Politico this past February: “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View’” (a U.S. television network talk show).
And today, television—and political TV commercials—are critical to the rise and continuance in office of candidates for, not just president, but for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, governorships, mayoral positions, and seats in state legislatures and on city councils.
A key boost for the Bill De Blasio in his successful run for New York City mayor this year were TV commercials in which his biracial son, Dante, appeared in, as the New York Daily News described it, “a stupendous Afro.” A city of great diversity embraced the image.
Meanwhile, the notion of the “Q Score” or “Q rating” has arrived. The term “Q Score” was coined in 1963 by Jack Landis who founded a company Marketing Evaluations, Inc. in Roslyn on Long Island. It continues to use the concept as the central measure in its opinion polling and market research work. “Q rating”—defined by Merriam-Webster as a “scale measuring the popularity of a person or thing”—is said by those dictionary people as having its “first known use” in 1977.
They mean roughly the same: they’re measures of likeability. They are the standard in the U.S. for how TV reporters keep their jobs these days, why TV programs are renewed, how products are promoted as well as how would-be holders of the presidency and other offices in the America—and increasingly leaders in nations around the world—are selected.
The basis for “I Like Ike” is now widely applied. And we are left to wonder what kind of “Q Score” or “Q rating” Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson might have had? What have we lost—and what have we gained?
I remember well the first televised presidential debate in America—between Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Polling showed that most of those who listened to it on radio thought that Nixon bested Kennedy, But those who watched it on TV felt nearly two-to-one that the charismatic, handsome Kennedy won.
Kennedy’s frequent televised press conferences were joys to watch. He was completely comfortable on TV—warm and full of humor.
That Kennedy largely through TV so well connected to the feelings of Americans was central to the profound sadness resulting—and still being felt—from his murder. .