Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 12. 5 August 1970
The Selling of the President 1968
The Selling of the President 1968
One of the ways to sell an inferior product is to dress it up in a manner that makes it appeal as being of much higher quality. Madison Avenue had discovered this many years ago and it was only to be a matter of time before the same technique was applied to politicians. The only difference is that in the case of politicians you do not even need the product, you just invent one.
Richard Nixon was the first President to be sold to the people of the United States, or so the story goes. Certainly, Nixon represented a great challenge to the ad-men.
"Let's face it, a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he's a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure when other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He'd always had his homework done and he'd never let you copy.
"Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, 'I want to be President."
The moral of this book is not that the ad-men took charge or that the President was sold like a packet of cigarettes, as the book's dust cover suggests, but that he was sold as a television personality. Nixon had lost to Kennedy largely through television as the first problem was selling television to him. Nixon is not telegenic and he had been branded as a loser since 1960. The ad-men's task was to create a new Nixon image. In an environment in which 99% of the voters have no personal contact with the candidate, it is the projected image that counts, or, more accurately, the received impression. The new Nixon image, however, did not mean a new Nixon; he remained the same dull, cold and largely humourless man of the 1950's. In effect the ad-men were forced to adopt a policy of presentation by concealment.
The two main television techniques employed were the commercial and the panel discussion. In the former, an attention-attracting series of still photographs was displayed, supplemented by a commentary; the hope being that the pictures would prevent people from paying too much attention to the words. The latter was characterised by rehearsed questions and a selected audience which greeted every Nixon reply with wild cheering to "make it seem to home viewers that enthusiasm for his candidacy was all but uncontrollable". Throughout his campaign, Nixon said nothing that was either new or interesting; he not only developed the use of the platitude to the full, he almost raised it to an art form.
Of course, the ad-men had a difficult task. Nixon was not particularly co-operative and, although well-powdered, he sweated freely under the studio lights. "Make sure you've got that handkerchief soaked in witch-hazel. I can't do that sincerity bit with the camera if he's sweating." There was the problem of Agnew—and how to "hide the Greek"—but most difficult of all was the intervention, almost sabotage, of Nixon's staff. The ad-men clearly considered politics too serious to be left to the politicians, who were no more than amateurs in communication, ignorant of the subtleties of Madison Avenue. These were 1950's-type friends; people who probably thought Marshall McLuhan starred in Gunsmoke. There was a total split between the advertising and political people of Nixon's campaign staff: every time a programme was prepared the 'ethnic specialist' would demand changes, such as the inclusion on a panel of a Jewish attorney, the president of some Polish-Hungarian group or a liberal negro (thereby cleverly doubling up on two categories). Nixon knew that if the ethnic mix was not tight the press would take advantage of it and Nixon disliked and feared the press.
For the ad-men, Nixon was just another client—although no doubt a very profitable one. Men of varying political opinions contributed to the advertising campaign, although some did so only after they had been assured that their names would not be involved. They succeeded in trivialising politics to such an extent because they were not particularly interested in the political aspect of their work. Indeed one is almost shocked by their absolute cynicism.
Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President comes as a pleasant change after Theodore White's four-yearly offerings. McGinniss does not seriously tax the reader's intelligence. His book is very readable and at times highly amusing. To some readers, no doubt, it will be disturbing. It discredits all concerned with Nixon's campaign, except Mr McGinniss himself—who seems to have been very astute in realising the commercial potential of such a book. However, in my opinion it is not the important book that some have claimed it to be. I am inclined to feel that the importance of television as a political medium is overrated. Today, a man gets elected for what he doesn't say and for what he isn't. Despite the ad-mens attempts to sell a new Nixon image, Nixon himself succeeded in reasserting his right to be just as dull and uninspiring on television as he had always been in person, and it may have been this that helped him get elected (c.f. Holyoake, Heath et alia). Nixon's election campaign cost $17 million. It started with Nixon holding an unprecedented lead in the opinion polls but ended with him being elected by the smallest of majorities over Hubert Humphrey, whose campaign funds had been very much smaller.
In The American Commonwealth (1911), Bryce claimed that the American political system is such that great men are never chosen President. The Selling of the President, whatever its significance with regard to the present political process, in no way serves to refute Bryce's claim.