In mass democracies, where it is impossible for candidates to meet most voters in person, political campaigning has always relied centrally on mass media. Since the beginnings of democracy, vast resources have been committed to campaign communications, motivated by the “widespread belief that media coverage matters to the outcome of elections” (Franklin 2004, 8). Friedenberg (1997), in his history of political consultants in the US, traced mediated campaigns back to colonial elections of the mid-1700s. He suggested that the first “media blitz” in a political campaign took place during the failed presidential bid of Thomas Jefferson in 1796, in which the campaign manager flooded the targeted state of Pennsylvania “with thousands of political handbills and over 30,000 sample ballots” in an election where only 12,000 Pennsylvanians voted (Friedenberg 1997, 4).
The 1828 presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson has been widely recognized as the first orchestrated media campaign in the US. The most prominent medium of Jackson’s day was the newspaper, and his campaign team took ample advantage of its potential. Campaign activists lobbied sympathetic editors and publishers for positive coverage, and produced an unprecedented quantity of campaign literature in the form of pamphlets, handbills, and broadsides. This literature pioneered negative advertising in its attacks on other candidates in the election, especially the incumbent, John Quincy Adams (Friedenberg 1997, 9). In response, his opponents issued handbills which “charged Jackson with ordering . . . executions, massacring Indians, stabbing a Samuel Jackson in the back, murdering one soldier . . . and hanging three Indians” (Jamieson 1996, 7).
Research On Us Elections
From the beginning, the mediatized campaign exerted its own logic on political life by encouraging a conflict-driven, personalized, and image-centered focus. Correspondingly, debates about whether campaigns should be imageor issue-driven began as early as the 1920s (Franklin 2004, 5). The need for careful management of media campaigns eventually gave rise to a new class of professionals: political consultants. The first professional political consultants were Clem Whitaker and Leonora Baxter, who made their names as the advisers for the 1934 re-election campaign of California governor Frank Merriam. To undermine the image of his Democratic opponent, the writer Upton Sinclair, Whitaker, and Baxter “produced phony newsreels of staged events. In one, dozens of bedraggled hoboes [sic] leap off a freight train, presumably having arrived in the Promised Land of California. Explains one bum [sic]: ‘Sinclair says he’ll take the property of the working people and give it to us’ ” (Diamond & Bates 1992, 36 –37).
With the rise of television, the micro-management of candidates’ media images became increasingly important . The need for campaigns to be image-savvy was most famously illustrated in the first Nixon–Kennedy debate of 1960, in which radio listeners believed that Nixon had won the debate, while TV viewers had little doubt that Kennedy had emerged victorious. As Jamieson (1996, 158) puts it, “Nixon’s pale complexion, the byproduct of a recent illness and inadequate make-up and lighting, his dark beard and the sweat that trickled over his upper lip and down his chin suggested a desperate person crumbling under the stress of the encounter with Kennedy.” To observers, the outcome of the Nixon–Kennedy contest highlighted the triumph of style over substance, image over issues, personality over politics, and emotional connection over rational deliberation.
Following the assassination of Kennedy and the ascent of Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency, the power of images to pull on the heartstrings of the electorate was driven home in Johnson’s 1964 re-election campaign. He ran against the conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, and his campaign produced the most famous political ad in the history of political broadcasting. Capitalizing on voters’ fear that Barry Goldwater might employ nuclear weapons in Vietnam, the spot juxtaposed the image of a young girl standing in a field, plucking petals from a daisy as she counts: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. . . . When she reaches ‘9,’ a Cape Canaveral voice begins a countdown of its own . . . At zero the camera, which throughout this second countdown has been closing on the child’s face, dissolves from her eye to a mushroom cloud that expands until it envelops the screen” (Jamieson 1996, 198). The ad, which never mentioned Barry Goldwater’s name, was aired only once, creating so much controversy that it was immediately pulled. Subsequently, however, it was shown innumerable times in news stories about the controversy. The “daisy ad” quickly became a symbol of the power of sophisticated campaign communications.
Professionalization Of Campaigns
Though much scholarly attention has been focused on the US case, the techniques developed there have slowly percolated through to media campaigning elsewhere. In most western European democracies, where paid political advertising on television is not allowed, and where public service broadcasting providers instead give the parties equal time to put across their message, the professionalization of politics and the image-consciousness that goes with it have been somewhat slower to emerge.
Most scholars tend to agree that the first media-driven election in the UK took place in 1957, when the Conservative party spent a then staggering sum of £468,000 on a poster campaign which insisted that, “Life is better with the Conservatives: Don’t let Labour ruin it” (Kavanagh 1995, 49). After they won the election by a landslide, media strategy took center stage in future elections. For the 1978 general election, the Conservative party, led by Margaret Thatcher, hired the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, whose glossy campaign on the theme of “Labour isn’t working” ushered in the era of professionalized media electioneering in the UK (Kavanagh 1995).
Since the 1980s, the practices of campaign media management that started their life in the US have been globalized. In a process referred to as the “Americanization” or “modernization” of politics (e.g., Mancini & Swanson 1996, p. 4), campaigns around the world have become increasingly professionalized and personalized. Political marketing is now a fact of life in western industrialized democracies, in Sweden, Argentina, Israel, Japan, and beyond. Such campaigns have often drawn on ideas and, in some cases, personnel from the United States, but have been shaped by the unique political, economic, and social circumstances of each national context. For example, in the 2005 Palestinian authority elections, Hamas paid a media consultant, Nashat Aqtash, $180,000, to help them with strategy. Aqtash advised the party to change their image by “explaining that they do not hate Israelis because they are Jews. And he [attempted] to persuade influential foreigners that Hamas is essentially a peaceful organisation that was forced to fight, but is now committed to pressing its cause through politics, not violence” (McGreal 2006). Hamas also sought to soften its image at home with the launch of a television station in Gaza that includes a children’s show presented by “Uncle Hazim” and men in furry animal suits (McGreal 2006).
The strategies of campaign media management have had an influence that extends beyond the electoral context. In 1980, the author and political consultant Sidney Blumenthal coined the term, “the permanent campaign,” to describe how the emphasis on image making and strategy has colonized politics, remaking “government into an instrument designed to sustain an election official’s popularity” (Blumenthal 1980, 7). In the UK context, the New Labour government has gained a reputation for its obsession with image management and message control, earning prime minister Tony Blair the labels of “King of Spin” and “Phony Tony.” As Franklin (2004, 73) noted, in the months before the 2001 general election, Blair’s government “spent £3 million on a single advertising campaign about benefit fraud: the same as McDonald’s budget for promoting ‘ Big Macs.’ ”
The increasing resources spent on persuading the public in elections and beyond have not, however, translated into more widespread public participation. If anything, observers lament the “crisis in public communications” (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995), reflected in a decline in conventional forms of political participation, including voting and newspaper readership. Some have linked this public apathy to an increase in negative and often deceptive campaigning. As early as 1981, Jay Blumler voiced his concern that “more and more people seem to be getting into a frame of mind where campaign propaganda is almost automatically expected to be off-putting” (1981, 59). While some scholarly evidence suggests that negative campaigning turns off voters to “shrink and polarize” the electorate (e.g., Ansolabehere & Iyengar 1996), other work suggests it may have a positive effect on voter turnout (Wattenberg & Brians 1999). Nevertheless, the emphasis on style over substance in election coverage remains a concern for observers, who worry that democracy is in danger when politicians and their policies are “branded and marketed like cornflakes or Big Macs” (Franklin 2004, 14).
In recent years, political campaigns have pinned their hopes for the revival of participation on new technologies. While the Internet has been hailed as a revolutionary technology of emancipation, the scholarly evidence is ambiguous. Philip Howard (2005) has documented how the rise of the “hypermedia campaign,” drawing on new media technologies, including direct marketing, has led to the “managed citizen.” Howard suggests that new technologies, despite their promises of empowering the citizenry, also enable increasingly sophisticated forms of surveillance, employed to cunning effect by hypermedia campaigners. And while citizens appear to appreciate the interactive opportunities inherent in new media campaigning, there is also evidence to suggest that such opportunities are severely circumscribed. As James Janack (2006) found, in his study of discussion on Howard Dean’s campaign blog, supporters of Dean policed debate to focus it on issues of strategy and style over substance. Contributors who wanted to actually discuss politics were silenced by other posters, who felt that such discussion was inappropriate. As such, the media through which electoral campaigns are channeled may change, but the debates surrounding their role in shaping political campaigns are as old as democracy itself.
- Ansolabehere, S., & Iyengar, S. (1996). Going negative: How political advertising divides and shrinks the American electorate. New York: Free Press.
- Blumenthal, S. (1980). The permanent campaign. New York: Beacon.
- Blumler, J. G. (1981). Political communication: Democratic theory and broadcast practice. University of Leeds Review, 24, 43 – 63.
- Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1995). The crisis in public communications. London: Routledge.
- Diamond, E., & Bates, S. (1992). The spot: The rise of political advertising on television. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Franklin, B. (2004). Packaging politics, 2nd edn. London: Arnold.
- Friedenberg, R. V. (1997). Communication consultants in political campaigns: Ballot box warriors. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Howard, P. N. (2005). New media campaigns and the managed citizen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Jamieson, K. H. (1996). Packaging the presidency, 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Janack, J. (2006). Mediated citizenship and digital discipline: A rhetoric of control in a campaign blog. Social Semiotics, 16(2), 283 –301.
- Kavanagh, D. (1995). Election campaigning: The new marketing of politics. London: Blackwell.
- Mancini, P., & Swanson, D. L. (1996). Politics, media and modern democracy: Introduction. In D. L. Swanson & P. Mancini (eds.), Politics, media and modern democracy: An international study of innovations in electoral campaigning and their consequences. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 1–28.
- McGreal, C. (2006). New-look Hamas spends £100k on an image makeover. Guardian, January 20. At www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1690610,00.html, accessed October 9, 2006.
- Wattenberg, M. P., & Brians, C. L. (1999). Negative campaign advertising: Demobilizer or mobilizer? American Political Science Review, 93, 891– 900.