Political Advertising

Rosser Reaves was born in 1910 in Virginia. His father was a Methodist minister. Rosser was an indifferent student who was expelled from the University of Virginia for crashing a friend’s car when he was drunk. It was the Prohibition Era. In fact, Rosser was drunk most of his time in college.

Rosser rarely attended school but won a statewide chemistry competition. Other students used what they learned in chemistry as the basis for their submissions. Rosser won for submitting an essay called “Better Living Through Chemistry”.

Using the $100 prize, Rosser left UVA and moved to Richmond where he began writing advertisements. Soon he moved to New York City to work for Ted Bates & Company one of the top advertising agencies in America.

He forged an advertising strategy based upon what he called the unique selling proposition (USP). He dismissed the accepted advertising approach which was typically based upon a clever message or humor, which said nothing about the product. His message for M&Ms was an example: “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”. Those messages were central to all the advertising of a product.

Rosser’s claim to fame was the advertisements he did for Dwight Eisenhower when he was running for President in 1952. In that year, there were nearly 10 million TVs in America, over half in major cities. The thought that TV could be used to sell a Presidential candidate was abhorrent to some, especially Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent.

Rosser convinced Eisenhower’s campaign team that TV was a way for him to convey an USP of being a strong, yet personable leader who could appeal to the average citizen. He filmed citizens asking questions with Eisenhower than responding. There were enough of these exchanges to allow the candidate to convey Eisenhower’s USP. From the TV commercials, the slogan “I Like Ike” evolved. Eisenhower won in a landslide.

The first political TV ads were focused on the positives of the candidates. It took just 10 years for them to turn negative. The advent of TV advertising led to increased expenses for campaigns and the influence of money in elections. What Rosser did not envision was the threat to democracy brought about by his advertising innovation.

Beginnings often have unintended consequences. That has certainly been the case with the impact of TV advertising in elections. One has to imagine how many outstanding persons have turned down campaigning for public office simply because they don’t want to raise money for TV commercials while exposing themselves to negative commercials.

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“It would be nice to spend billions on schools and roads, but right now that money is desperately needed for political ads.” – Andy Borowitz (humorist)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.