Brief History of Political Advertising in the U.S.

Radio, television, and the internet changed how candidates advertise

NBC and CBS broadcast booths at a political convention
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Andy Nelson / Getty Images

Political advertising during the run-up to a presidential election in the U.S. bombards TV viewers, radio listeners, internet users, and anyone who sees a billboard. The amount of money spent on political advertising grows every year, with an estimated $9.8 billion spent in the 2016 election year.

Television's Impact

The dawn of television changed the way politicians reach audiences. Before that, it was all about getting out and about, meeting voters, holding town-hall debates, and shaking hands. In 1948, Harry S. Truman traveled more than 31,000 miles and shook more than half a million hands. Candidates still emphasize meeting voters in person, but the reach of television has grown so much since 1948 that one effective ad can reach more people than Truman reached in all of his campaign travels.

Presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first politician to really take advantage of TV, creating more than three dozen 20-second television spots. They were filmed in one day at Radio City Music Hall, where visitors asked questions that were spliced into separate shots of Eisenhower answering their questions in what he described as his "no bull" way. The "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign was credited with helping Eisenhower win the election.

TV Ads & Debates

After Eisenhower, the power of television established itself during the 1960 presidential campaign. Nixon's television addresses covering the Cold War and government corruption were very powerful. However, John F. Kennedy, the eventual winner, was born to be on camera and created more than 200 television ads in his run for the White House.

Television viewers thought Kennedy was the clear winner of his debate with Nixon, but those listening on radio thought the opposite.

Their televised debate is seen as a watershed in political campaigning. While Kennedy was at ease on camera, looking slick and confident, Nixon was fidgety, had sweat on his brow and looked troubled.

Negative TV Ads

Lyndon B. Johnson's "The Daisy Girl" ad in 1964 showed a young girl playing "he loves me, he loves me not," and when she plucked the last petal from the daisy, a voice counted down to a nuclear explosion. The tagline, "because the stakes are too high for you to stay at home," is credited with sealing Johnson's victory over Barry Goldwater, but the ad still was controversial.

In the decades that followed, more political campaigns went negative, and while voters claim to dislike attack ads, statistics show they are effective.

New Media

Bill Clinton was the first presidential candidate to effectively use more non-traditional forms of television exposure. Rather than run a campaign comprised solely of TV spots, radio ads, and billboards, he spread his reach much wider by appearing on TV talk shows and finding his way onto cable channels like MTV. This grabbed the attention of younger voters.

Artist Shepard Fairey created an iconic poster seen across America on social media that featured an image of the candidate and the word hope.

Barack Obama further changed the game by using the internet and guerrilla advertising tactics successfully. Obama's use of modern methods, plus his youth and charm, upstaged his much older, traditional opponent, John McCain.

2016's Battle of the Bizarre

In what many considered a surprising result, candidate Donald Trump was successful in defeating Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 presidential election. Trump's caustic rhetoric and the media attention it garnered gave his campaign millions of dollars worth of coverage without spending a dime. Trump's use of Twitter as a means of reaching voters directly was unprecedented and has proven to be effective for him.