Since the first U.S. presidential election in 1789 political campaigns have undergone many evolutions. Way back when, candidates had to rely on newspaper advertisements, word-of-mouth, and physically meeting their constituents by touring the states. Later came radio ads, and then in 1952, the first “spot” television campaign advertisements were run, garnering votes for Truman and Eisenhower. These set the precedent for the typical political commercials we see today. Unlike previous candidates who aired 30 minute speeches to advertise their politics, Eisenhower himself starred in 20 to 60 second ads (an archive of them is viewable here) to boost his campaign–and he won.
But many of these traditional methods are losing their impact on contemporary audiences. Perhaps they’ve become too familiar, or simply can’t compete with more interactive, or entertaining, advertising styles. Considering the modes of political advertising is currently relevant because of the build-up towards the 2016 presidential election. With 15 Republican candidates, the competition is not just about Democrats vs. Republicans, but about distinguishing themselves within their own party–and advertising is one way they can achieve this.
According to polls collected by the Huffington Post, Donald Trump is in the lead with 28.3% of poll takers approving his politics. Ben Carson is second, with 20.5% of poll takers confident in his ability to lead America. Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic polls with 56.1% approval. Carson, Hillary, and Trump are not the typical presidential candidates, but they all are recognizable in the way of celebrities because of pre-established media attention. Ben Carson was an esteemed neurosurgeon until 2013 and is the author of 7 books. Hillary was a senator, first lady during President Bill Clinton’s near-impeachment, and is the current Secretary of State. Trump is a real-estate mogul, producer and hosted The Apprentice, is quite active on Twitter, and has his hands in many other organizations.
So the leading candidates have gained their popularity mostly for being recognizable and having celebrity-like statuses. Most recently in the competition between 2016 presidential campaign advertisements, Trump has benefitted from free publicity. On November 7th, 2015, Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live, which had 9.3 million viewers. As the New York Times has observed,
“[TV ads] are seen as a last resort of struggling campaigns that have not mastered the art of attracting the free media coverage that has lifted the political fortunes of insurgent campaigns like those of Mr. Trump and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has surged to the top of the polls.”
Trump has spent only $2 million of his own money on advertising, compared to Clinton’s $18.2. He generates publicity with his constant, and loud, controversial statements, which receive print and air space in newspapers and on talk shows. He pays nothing for the “advertising.” He has only recently paid $300,000 for his first 2016 advertisements, but they are only radio commercials. Social media, especially Twitter, is also a strong point of connection between Trump and the general public–without the medium of news organizations. This is a risky advertising model, and can easily become a nightmare of uncontrolled negative publicity. But if Trump manages to win the 2016 presidential elections, will future candidates change their tactics? Is he setting a precedent for the way in which political candidates will generate attention for their politics? Or is he an anomaly among politicians?