The MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads: 1952

Following last night's clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination by Barack Obama, the MediaLog introduces the MediaLog History of Presidential Political Ads, a regular series of video posts highlighting political ads from presidential campaigns since the dawn of television. Through periodic postings over the summer and fall the series will progress from what is considered to be the first "TV election" in 1952 right up to the present contest in 2008.

In 1952, many areas of the country did not yet even get TV signals, and the TV industry had just emerged from a station freeze (imposed by the FCC to sort out TV frequencies) that had lasted since 1948. NBC and CBS were the powerhouse TV networks (as they had been in radio) and ABC was a noncompetitive also-ran, at the time smaller and less influential than even the DuMont television network (which would cease operations in 1955). Television production was still centered for the most part in New York, and emphasized live dramatic anthology programs, public affairs and panel programs, and vaudeville-based variety shows. The top shows in '52 were "I Love Lucy," "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," and "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle.

Nonetheless, presidential aspirants were beginning to appreciate the promotional potential of television. Of course, their use of television in 1952 conformed to the conventions and limitations, as well as the quirks and idiosyncrasies, of television of the era, as the following two videos demonstrate. The Republican nominee in '52 was Dwight Eisenhower, who traded on (and won the presidency based on) his stellar reputation as the Allied commander in Europe in World War II. Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who reluctantly entered the race at the behest of outgoing president Harry Truman, was the Democratic nominee.

This ad by the Eisenhower campaign is a charming example of many of the characteristics of 1950s TV advertising: whimsical animation, a light and catchy jingle, the beginnings of slick and concise branding of a product (which here just happens to be a presidential candidate). The ad mixes the jovial "Ike" persona that became Eisenhower's political "brand" and which he exploited at least as much as his military credentials with a stiltedness that marked the political use of a still-nascent medium--evidenced by Eisenhower's awkward entreaty for "good Americans" to "come to the aid of their country":

If the above Eisenhower ad is an exemplar of 1950s advertising techniques, the following Stevenson ad is a catalog of surrealistic elements that are astounding to witness today. Eschewing the kind of techniques utilized in the Eisenhower ad, this spot instead consists of single medium-zooming-to-close-up shot of a woman singing a bizarre campaign song to the tune of the Christmas carol "O Tannenbaum." The strange choice of music, the song's ridiculous rhymes for "Stevenson," and the unsophisticated visuals mark the ad as a true oddity of political advertising--but also as an indicator of how primitive presidential political advertising still was in the early-1950s:

Video source: YouTube.

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