Contemporary campaigning deserves criticism, but personal attacks, emotive material and scare tactics in political advertising are not new in Western democracies. Anyone who believes they are is probably looking at the past with rose-coloured glasses on.
Using a typology of political advertising which is itself almost 25 years old, we can see how long political parties have been trying to push people’s buttons with TV ads. Over the fold, I go very briefly through Devlin’s (1986) typology of political ads, and Jamieson’s (1986) addition to that typology, using material from the current Australian election campaign where possible. This might be additional food for thought for those who watched the Gruen Transfer’s examination of political ads the other night.
There won’t always be an exact correspondence for all parts of the typology because the campaign has a while to run. It’s really just warming up after a fortnight – as usual the parties will save most of their cash for the final weeks. There are reports suggesting that the Liberal Party doesn’t have a lot of cash to play around with anyway – a lot of their shots will be fired as undecided voters make up their minds late in the campaign.
The first kind of political ad is the one Devline calls “Primitive” – the kind that appeared very early in the history of modern campaigning, and there’s no real analogue for it now. From a contemporary point of view, primitive ads often seem to be a confused mish-mash of different styles, with unfocussed aims.
In the 1950s, advertisers were still coming to understand the medium of television. The stagy qualities of their awkward reproductions of campaign events were obvious even at the time. Here’s one from the Eisenhower presidential campaign in 1952, from his famous “Eisenhower answers America” series. There’s some talking heads material, some negative attacks, some stabs at a form of endorsement, but it’s all a bit clumsy.
The second type of ad described by Devlin is the “talking heads” ad. These ads attempt to showcase the personality and authority of leaders. They’re framed as a direct address by a politician to a viewer – they’re aimed at making a direct personal appeal to voters. They can be used to promote positive messages , to mount a defence, or to attack opponents, but if they’re attacking they tend to be “principled” rather than vicious personal attacks.
Here’s a classic from Richard Nixon. This is the “Checkers speech”, where he was, as Eisenhower’s Vice President, fighting for his political life.
And here’s the Liberal Party’s “Stand up for Australia” ad from this campaign, featuring Tony Abbott front and centre.
“Inspiring” jingle and the foregrounding of the “action contract” tends to obscure the fact that this is a pretty pronounced negative attack on the Labor Party.
Here’s rather an uninspiring example – John Howard in 1987. Horses? Mud?
The third type Devlin nominates is the “concept ad” - the ad that outlines the “big ideas” that a party or candidate is trying to get across. These are aimed at associating party messages with a range of positive qualities and images, and at welding party proposals into a narrative, often, again, built around a leader’s personality. Of course, oftentimes the content of these ads won’t be ideas at all so much as slogans and emotive appeals. The Libs’ pre-campaign “real action ads” almost qualify, but there’s a much better example in Kevin Rudd’s ads from 2007 (which seems a world away now).
Slick stuff produced under the Gartrell secretariat – emphasising values rather than policy, keeping it non-specific, but emphasising positive change.
In Australia, the one that everyone tends to talk about in this category is the Whitlam campaign’s “It’s Time” ad – people love it but it’s essentially content-free, like other concept ads.
The classic in the genre is commonly acknowledged to be Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” ads. These ads consolidated the achievements of Reagan’s first term – the big ideas of enterprise, leadership, national pride and Reagan himself wrapped up in the optimism of ”morning“ and some very inspirational American landscapes.
The next type are negative ads. They come in many shapes and sizes, and with verying degrees of vitriol and shamelessness. They’re aimed, of course, at taking down an opponent by building negative associations in the minds of voters.
The grandaddy is the Johnson campaign’s infamous “Daisy” ad used against Goldwater in 1964. Any ads the current campaign would pale beside this, which basically associates Johnson’s opponent with the people’s worst nightmares without mentioning his name or any element of policy.
But mockery can be just as effective as outright scare tactics, as in the AWU’s “Abbott Family” ads.
Here’s some “Union thugs” scare-tactics from the Libs in 2007.
Some more – ugly, repeated snippets of black and white footage arefavoured component of negative ads. Crude, but effective.
Oh yes, here’s one from the ALP concerning Mr Abbott that’s been running in recent days. It’s meant to frighten you.
Shabby looking black and white photo, less for you, he’s a liar, etc.
My favourite example in this category, which I can’t seem to find on YouTube, are the anti-Keating scare ads from 1996. Anyone have a copy?
Next cab off the rank is “personal witness” ads. These are aimed at giving credence to campaign messages by means of independent, third party endorsement and/or offering endorsement from “ordinary” people who voters are supposed to identify with.
Celebrity endorsements attempt to build an association between the candidate and an admired personage. Of course, Chuck Norris doesn’t endorse, he tells America how it’s gonna be.
Here’s a “vox pop” personal witness ad from the Coalition’s 2007 campaign.
Here is an example of a far more effective personal witness ad from the ACTU’s Your Rights At Work campaign in 2007, which many argue was a key factor in tipping out the Howard government.
The mining industry ran some pretty effective personal witness ads against the RSPT which were built on the YRAW template. Yet to see too many of these in this campaign, but do brace yourselves.
The last kind, which Jamieson added to Devlin’s typology, is the “neutral reporter” format, which apes a newscast, and in which “facts” are given which the viewer is invited to make an independent judgement on.
Not so much of this yet in 2010 in Australia, but here’s one from the 2008 Obama campaign.
Anyway, let me know what else you spot as the campaign rolls on. And may we all be given strength.
Devlin, L. “An analysis of presidential television commercials, 1952-1984″, in Kaid et al., eds, New perspectives on political advertising, Carbiondale, Southern Illinois University Press.
Jamieson, K. “The evolution of political advertising in America”, in Kaid et al., eds, New perspectives on political advertising, Carbiondale, Southern Illinois University Press.
UPDATE: Here’s a new negative ad the Libs put out this arvo, which Ben Pobjie called as “horrifically violent”.
UPDATE II – Tim Watts in comments reminds us of this absolute classic in the “concept” category – from the British Labour Party’s campaign in 1997.