- By Keith J. Henderson
- Keith J. Henderson is the Monitor's assistant feature editor. Pollsters, political action committees, endless primaries - all have changed the way Americans choose their president in recent decades. But nothing has altered the face of electoral politics more than television. And nothing coming through the tube can compare in volume and impact to the ''spot'' - that short, punchy, half-minute bit of propaganda that's geared to leave an indelible mark on our civic affections. With the 1984 presidential race having long since galloped madly passed what used to be the official Labor Day starting line, we're all beginning to see a startling array of ''spots'' before our eyes. They'll range from sizzling negative ones to atmospheric, reassuring positive ones. Some will disgust us; some may even sway us. One thing is certain: all these samples of television poster art will be the products of intricate planning. Media consultants commanding hefty fees will have poured their creative energies into them, and campaign managers and candidates will have pondered their every nuance. The making of TV campaign spots is now virtually an American political tradition, claiming such stellar antecedents as Ike's landmark ''Eisenhower Answers America'' series, Nixon's memorable ''Checkers Speech,'' and the notorious ''Daisy'' spot, with which Lyndon Johnson torpedoed Barry Goldwater in 1964. We're all aware of these quadrennial miniproductions - and we may even have had passing qualms about what they're doing to good, old-fashioned American politics. But most of us are probably sadly ignorant of just how they came to be , or how they're evolving right within our living rooms. Enter Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates. Their book, ''The Spot,'' lays bare the dynamics of televised political advertising. Starting with a case study of one campaign that started out to dazzle the public through television and promptly went down in smoke (John Glenn's), the authors go on to trace the evolution of the spot from the early '50s to the present. Wisely, they spice their solid analysis with many pages of stills and scripts of actual spots. It's hardly as good as viewing the pieces on screen, but one catches at least some sense of the visual impact. The book draws heavily on the authors' numerous interviews with the professional ad men and political consultants whose knacks for promotion have molded the modern presidential campaign. There's the pioneer, Rosser Reeves, whose ''unique selling proposition'' (USP) worked so well for M&Ms (''melts in your mouth, not in your hand'') and other products. He developed the ''Eisenhower Answers America'' spots in 1952. As Diamond and Bates note, that campaign raised questions about TV political advertising that have recurred ever since: ''Should presidential campaigns be run by marketing principles and ad men , or by political tactics and party professionals? Do thirty-second or sixty-second spots ignore issues and content in favor of image and emotion? Does the best man win, or the most telegenic performer? Can money buy enough media to buy elections?'' In the '60s the advertising ''soft sell'' came into vogue. This technique, too, found its way into politics. The pitch moved from the drumbeat of repetition (the USP) to an overt appeal to the emotions, and no one knew better how to strike ''The Responsive Chord'' (the title of one of his books) than Tony Schwartz. Diamond and Bates relate a telling anecdote about Schwartz's entry into the 1964 Johnson campaign. Aaron Ehrlich, a producer with the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency met with Schwartz, held up a picture of Lyndon Johnson, and asked: ''Would you work for this product?'' Schwartz said yes, and thus began a spell of creative spot-making that culminated in the much admired, and much reviled, ''Daisy'' ad. That spot, you may recall, moves from a little girl picking petals from a daisy to a man's voice counting down to a nuclear explosion. The message, faintly veiled, was clear: Barry Goldwater just might push the button. The spot epitomized Schwartz's tenet that ''the best political commercials ... do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings and provide a context for him to express those feelings.'' The authors devote a section near the end of the book to the differing styles of political advertising. They analyze the ''ID spot,'' which is intended to give prospective voters ''some sense of the candidate,'' the ''argument spot,'' and the ''attack.'' Their discussion can't help but make one more aware of what's really going on the next time a spot hits the screen. And always, the comments from the media strategists themselves convey the crowning insights. Consider this from Robert Goodman, one of the real old pros of the business: ''Political ads are really classical drama. You try to become the good guy. ... You draw a contrast, put the white hat on. You orchestrate it, almost like a production, so that they leave the theater singing your song - or singing your praises.'' Diamond and Bates spend their last few pages weighing the crucial question of just how effective spots really are. Their conclusion? Never underestimate the critical faculties of the viewing voter. Americans have been exposed to every kind of advertising pitch conceivable; they can sense when reality is being played with. And if the image the media men are striving to create somehow doesn't jibe with a candidate's actual bearing, the spots can be for naught. Just ask John Glenn.
The Spot: The Rise of Political Advertising in Television, by Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 220 pp. $17.50.