Paper: Political Advertisements

This time I’m looking at political advertising in the 1976 Presidential campaign. The professor sent us all to the Living Room Candidate site to watch Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford’s ads and do an analysis of them.

Jimmy Carter’s Advertisements

Carter’s first ad (“Essence”) is a sort of teaser trailer. Like teasers in a movie theater, it doesn’t tell you what Carter is about, it just announces that he’s Jimmy Carter and running for President. The visual consists entirely of encounters between Jimmy Carter and men on the street as he campaigns. The audio narrative makes clear that Carter’s campaign will be based on his being a Washington outsider; the advertisement ends with the tagline Carter will use throughout: “A leader, for a change.”

Carter’s second ad is the “Bio” you expect. At over 4 minutes the spot gives plenty of time for Carter to emphasize that he’s a good guy, a real Southerner, and a leader of the people. This is one of only three ads that don’t end with “A leader, for a change.”

Carter’s advertisements continue with “Secrecy,” about how special interests have too much influence in Washington and we need a “sunshine law” to make sure decisions are made for the people; and “South” emphasizing Carter’s southern roots and populism. “Rose” is a 62-second spot highlighting Carter’s wife (the titular Rose) discussing the things she’s heard from people while campaigning. This is the second spot that doesn’t end “A leader, for a change”; the final line is Rose saying she thinks that “Jimmy will be a great President.” Presumably the “a leader, for a change” line was just too jarring a transition from Rose’s warm, pretty voice and image; it detracted from the goal of emphasizing Carter’s family image.

“Welfare” follows, in which Carter emphasizes the number of jobless in the country and suggests a plan to help them, without becoming beholden to them. “Leader” features Carter talking about how government should behave — there is, of course, nothing controversial here, just the usual words: “efficient,” “open”, “for the people.”

Carter’s last ad, “Reality,” deserves a very special place. A 60-second spot, it features Jimmy Carter talking about the “real” state of the economy, and contrasting it with what “the Republicans are saying.” It is the one and only attack ad that Carter airs during the entire campaign. It also ends differently than all the other ads. Walter Mondale’s name has been added to the closing screen, and rather than a voice booming “A leader, for a change” it closes in silence after Carter has finished.

Gerald Ford’s Advertisements

Ford opens his campaign a little differently than Carter. Everybody knows Ford, so his first advertisement is “Leadership”, essentially a biography of Ford’s time as President. The ad opens and closes with Ford giving a rousing speech to cheering spectators and emphasizes a number of points: we are better off than before Ford; he makes government what we want (reigning in the Congress!); he has restored honor to the White House and created a non-imperial Presidency (deliberately distancing himself from Nixon); he listens to other points of view and is open to persuasion — a black man gets 30 seconds discussing busing and how he disagrees with Ford on it, but Ford always listens to him and he’s “not sure [Ford] isn’t right.”

“Biography” is, for Ford, just a 30-second spot ending “Gerald Ford has always been best when the going is toughest. Let’s keep him in charge.” The 62-second “Man on the Street” features a varied collection of people explaining they’re usually Democrats, but they’re voting for Ford. One is “embarrassed” by Carter; it’s a mild attack ad. “Children/Achievements” is also a minute-long ad; it features a group of children asking Ford what his biggest achievement is; Ford replies that he has healed America. It ends “A kind and decent man who’s making us proud again.”

“Man on the Street” is a collection of diverse voters who all claim to be democrats voting for Ford; one says he is “embarrassed” by Carter. “Children/Achievements” tries to paint Ford as a friendly man by picturing him with a group of smiling children; one asks what Ford’s biggest achievement is and he replies that he has healed America.

The next two ads are attack ads on Carter. “Strom Thurmond” brings forward the southern lion to argue that Carter will not be a friend to the South; it claims that he has promised to sign away state rights so the northern union bosses will support him. This ad serves as both a character attack and directly counters Carter’s “South.” “Criswell” features the Reverend Criswell telling a story about Ford in which Ford refuses to give Playboy an interview, and ends with a voiceover: “President Ford. He’s the kind of man we should keep in the White House.” The ad is as strange as it sounds, but came as a direct response to an interview that Carter did give to Playboy. The interview generated a great deal of outrage, not just for its publisher, but because of Carter’s controversial remarks, including that he had “committed adultery in my heart.” This interview and the responses to it were largely responsible for Carter losing his (very large) post-convention bump.

Ford’s last three ads become increasingly upbeat. “Workers” is a contrast ad in which Ford says he wants to cut taxes for the working class while Carter wants to raise them. It sends a mixed message, though, as it opens with a worker describing how his wife had to get a second job to make ends meet — this is not a positive retrospective like the rest of Ford’s campaign is! “Pearl Bailey” features the famous (black) singer/actress endorsing Gerald Ford, in a continuing attempt to convince Carter’s democratic base that Ford is a leader they can trust. And “Peace” is just what it sounds like: a 62-second spot highlighting how much peace Ford has given the nation, not just in the world but in terms of contentment at home.

Trend Analysis

The political advertisements during the 1976 Presidential election illustrate the basic trends described in the book. Carter ran a generally positive campaign introducing himself while subtly reminding people of Nixon (and his association with Ford). Ford ran a campaign painting himself as an established leader and trying to undermine Carter’s character.

Jimmy Carter’s ads were carefully designed to portray him as a populist with plans. Five of his nine ads are exclusively Carter talking directly to either the viewer or a “common man;” a few are taken from a speech but most are interview-style. 2 of the ads propose specific policies; they all have a domestic focus — there is no attempt to engage foreign policy at any level (with the notable exception of “Reality,” which mentions foreign energy and America’s place in the world in passing). Carter’s very last ad, “Reality,” is an attack ad, and it deliberately turns retrospective. Carter attacks the Republican portrayal of the country as economically healthy and generally happier than in the past, and concludes that “[fixing] it’s a long, tough job; it’s time we got started.”

Gerald Ford’s ads worked hardest at two main goals: distancing Ford from Nixon as much as possible, painting Ford as an established leader we can trust, and attacking Carter’s character. Nixon is never mentioned by name and all references to his presidency are negative in tone. There are references throughout Ford’s ads to the new direction he has taken the country: healing America, creating a “non-imperial presidency,” and improving the economy. Four of Ford’s nine ads attack Carter at his base (in an attempt to define Carter negatively), but the end of the campaign becomes steadily more upbeat; the last ad is literally a jingle about peace (in every sense of the word). Ford’s ads also have a much stronger foreign policy focus, intended to remind voters that Ford had managed to warm relations with Russia and China (ironically, by following Nixon’s foreign policy).