Channeling hope, fear, and old-fashioned honesty through the ages.
The essence of the modern political campaign all boils down to marketing — after all, the ability to convert insight about American voters and political hopefuls into a persuasive, multi-platform plan of action is a highly orchestrated affair. With the proliferation of digital ad spending for presidential campaigns in the 21st century, candidates are often reduced to a single caricature, as communicated through these carefully constructed marketing strategies.
Let’s take a look at some of the most effectively branded presidential campaigns of the past:
1. Abraham Lincoln: Truth and Integrity
Before there were Twitter battles and Google analytics, there was good old-fashioned truth telling, and Abraham Lincoln was the master of the sport. The 16th president of the United States first earned the nickname “Honest Abe” when he was working as a store clerk in New Salem, IL. According to one story, whenever he realized he had shortchanged a customer by a few pennies, he would close the shop and deliver the correct change. Lincoln established a reputation for himself through genuine acts of integrity before ever stepping into the political arena. That straightforward sincerity enabled him to efficiently win over voters and solve political issues, without the exhausting theatrics that often characterize today’s campaigns.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Likeable Ike
Dwight Eisenhower’s memorable 1952 presidential campaign ad was written by Irving Berlin and produced by Roy Disney and Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon. The upbeat and catchy “I Like Ike” cartoon spot was the very first campaign ad aired on TV, and was released at a time when the Korean War was losing support, Cold War tensions were increasing, and President Harry Truman’s disapproval ratings were through the roof. The ad’s simple, upbeat jingle corresponded well with Eisenhower’s other campaign slogan: “Korea, Communism, and Corruption,” and positioned him as the logical solution to the shortcomings of the current administration.
3. John F. Kennedy: Harnessing the Power of TV
When Kennedy ran for president at 42 in 1960, he was to be the youngest man ever elected to the White House. Not only that, but he would also be the first Catholic president. Kennedy shaped his campaign around these two defining characteristics, and positioned himself as a candidate who could offer the country something fresh and new. He was also the first presidential nominee to embrace the new medium of television, and used it to his advantage through captivating broadcast appearances and TV advertising. “I think the most important moment was in that first television debate with Richard Nixon, when Kennedy came across as presidential,” JFK biographer Robert Dallek told NPR; “as someone who was poised, who was witty, charming, handsome and deserved to be president of the United States.”
4. Lyndon B. Johnson: The Stakes Are Too High
Lyndon B. Johnson has been credited with revolutionizing political advertising with his campaign’s 1964 television spot, which featured a small girl counting out loud as she plucks petals from a daisy. As her countdown concludes, she is replaced by a nuclear blast and an accompanying mushroom cloud. President Johnson’s voiceover enters the spot, issuing an ominous warning: “We must love each other or we must die.” Played only once, during a September 7, 1964 NBC Monday Night At the Movies broadcast, the controversial spot was immediately pulled from the air. But Johnson’s point had been made: vote for him or risk entering nuclear war under opponent Barry Goldwater.
5. Barack Obama: Hope and Change
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign marked a new era in political branding, hinging upon Obama’s symbolic significance as the first African American candidate to win a major party’s nomination. The campaign used powerful visual tools like Shepard Fairey‘s iconic “Hope” poster to emphasize the candidate’s promise of “Change We Can Believe In,” a slogan that proved more effective than opponent John McCain’s “Country First.” The Obama campaign became the first to deftly embrace social media, and the internet’s meritocracy seemed a natural extension of Obama’s “of the people” attitude. Displaying digital savvy ahead of the curve helped Obama — whose name and skin color already established him as a symbol of forward progress — to embody post-boomer America. His successful bid for office is an electrifying case study in the power of political marketing.
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