Race has long been a factor in television political advertising. Presidential candidates across the political spectrum have often featured Black supporters in advertisements as a strategy to speak to communities of color. For example, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign featured a conversation between the Massachusetts senator and Harry Belafonte, ending with the actor endorsing Kennedy for president. In 1976, President Gerald Ford deployed a similar strategy by featuring an advertisement with singer and actor Pearl Bailey discussing why she supported the incumbent president.
Advertisements have also been used as racist dog whistles to mobilize white voters by demonizing civil rights demonstrations and activism. In 1968, Republican strategist Kevin Phillips advised Nixon to emphasize “crime decentralization of federal social programming and law and order” in order to win support from white voters, notably racially conservative Southerners and blue collar workers in northern cities.
Emotions run high during presidential election years. This has always been the case. In the election of 1800, a Federalist newspaper supporting incumbent President John Adams wrote that if the former Vice President Thomas Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” That election set the stage for mudslinging and a language of fear that has since consumed electoral politics, especially during times of crises.
This is the first post for 2020 edition of the Living Room Candidate blog.
For the past 70 years, political advertising on television has sold the strengths of candidates by extolling their leadership virtues and also warning about the dangers of their opponents. Advertisements walk the line between publicity and propaganda, misrepresentation and misinformation. Because television broadcasters use airwaves categorized as public to disseminate their programming, they are required to follow certain Federal Communication Commission (FCC) requirements about programming content, and this applies to political advertising. FCC rules mandate that broadcasters make available equal time at equal rates to all candidates running for federal offices. Since political advertising is protected by the First Amendment, broadcasters must air these advertisements, even if filled with distortion and lies, as long as the campaign pays the designated rate.
At times, when campaigns have advanced misinformation, public outcry has pressured them to pull controversial advertisements. An example of this is from the infamous 1964 “Daisy Ad.” Produced by Lyndon Johnson’s campaign, the TV spot showed a young girl picking flowers before fading to a countdown to a nuclear blast. The 60-second advertisement concluded with a mushroom cloud and a voiceover that warned of the dangers of extremism, an attack on Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater even thought his name was never directly mentioned. The advertisement only aired once, before outrage at the manipulative message pushed the Democratic Party to pull it from circulation.
Today, private companies like Facebook and Twitter have the authority to institute rules for communicating through their mediums, which they have introduced for the 2020 election. But, the Internet allows for misinformation and doctored videos to travel quickly. Efforts by foreign countries, notably Russia and China, to interfere in American elections hinge on waging disinformation to stir discord and disillusionment with democratic institutions.