• U.S.

Packaging the Presidency

5 minute read
James Kelly

How to coordinate campaigning and commercials

Flick the television set on these past few weeks and what did you see? A cinemascopic shot of a bunting-bedecked stage set between sunny crowds and smiling skies. Then a closeup of Ronald Reagan, standing against a blue backdrop (always blue) and delivering in patented style (bob of the head, hint of a grin) a homey Americanism. Cut to the faces of his listeners, some aglow in admiration, others damp with tears. A band bursts into melody, balloons sail heavenward, and cheers erupt from a thousand throats.

Quick. Was that scene a Reagan re-election ad or a network news clip? Probably both. Reagan’s managers have done such a seamless job of presenting their candidate this year that viewers often had trouble telling the paid political announcements from the evening news. Unlike Walter Mondale’s campaign, Reagan’s appearances were as meticulously staged as his commercials. Unlike Mondale, Reagan moved away from the traditional political spots—direct, issue oriented, slightly jarring—and embraced the sleek, atmospheric slow-dissolve appeals usually reserved for selling Coke and Almost Home cookies. The marketing of the President, through both paid commercials and the “free media” provided on televised news clips, was so skillfully coordinated that it will almost surely change the standard for future national campaigns.

The strategy was overseen largely by White House Aide Michael Deaver, a former public relations executive who has loyally guarded Reagan’s image since 1966. He and White House Chief of Staff James Baker decided last spring to stress broad themes over specific issues, to play up feelings of patriotism and prosperity rather than defend the details of Reagan’s policies. The execution was left to Tuesday Team Inc., the cadre of Madison Avenue superstars recruited for the re-election account. Few of them had done political commercials before; their experience lay in dreaming up singing felines for Meow Mix cat food and tingly, tender ads for Pepsi-Cola. Disappointed with the mediocre political spots used in 1980, Deaver and Nancy Reagan this time insisted on high-gloss commercials. Their view: the ads should be of a quality befitting a President. The Tuesday Team was happy to oblige. “For the Madison Avenue guys, that’s the way they do it every day,” said Doug Watts, the campaign’s director of communications. “Political ads have been sore thumbs that stick out from the other messages on TV, like a used-car ad in the middle of the travel ads.” The producers used mostly 35-mm film (instead of inferior videotape), elaborate lighting, lush music (unheard of in political spots) and the latest cutting and dubbing techniques.

The first round of ads mirrored Reagan’s optimism and capitalized on the country’s economic health and blush of patriotism. In leafy Anytown, U.S.A. (filmed partly in Santa Rosa, Calif.), shots of blond moppets getting haircuts mingled with those of home-towners hoisting flags and school bands parading down sun-dappled streets. In the campaign’s closing days, the commercials focused on Reagan, bathed in natural light and looking relaxed. His voice was soft, his pitch distinctly presidential.

Campaign stops were carefully staged to reinforce the TV images. At the start of a typical rally, tiny American flags were passed out, hundreds of balloons were pinned under nets waiting for the “go” signal, and a local band played patriotic tunes. If advancemen feared the turnout would be small, the platform for TV crews was moved closer to the main stage so that the evening news would depict a jammed crowd. When polls revealed surprising strength among the young, schedulers quickly planned more campus events. “It fits the theme,”explained Deaver. “Optimism, youth, opportunity. All positive.”

Mondale’s media campaign, by contrast, seemed seldom in sync with what the candidate was seen doing on the evening news. Granted, the Democratic challenger had the unenviable task of attacking an admired incumbent. “We had to say things aren’t as good as you think,” said Senior Adviser Richard Leone. Nonetheless, the Mondale camp ran only about 20 different spots, about half the Reagan total, and spent less too (about $20 million, in contrast to Reagan’s $25 million). The ads either focused on dry, nonvisual subjects like the deficit, or scattered their blasts, as in the commercial linking Reagan to the Rev. Jerry Falwell on half a dozen disparate issues. Unlike Reagan, with his “Leadership That’s Working,” Mondale had no slogan to give his campaign coherence. Said David Garth, a New York media maven: “I didn’t know what the Mondale theme was . . . except ‘Vote for Mondale-Ferraro.’ ” The Democrat’s aides defended their approach as the more realistic. “We aren’t running a Hollywood feel-good campaign,” said Mondale Consultant Judy Press Brenner to Adweek. Toward the end, the Mondale messages grew more effective, focusing on fairness, arms control and the future. The most gripping was a five-minute film intercutting shots of awed youngsters and nuclear missiles hurtling skyward, accompanied by Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s evocative Teach Your Children. As other commercials depicted Mondale on the stump declaring, “It’s time for America to move on,” news clips showed him uttering the same words to the most clamorous crowds in his career.

Politicians like to tell the story about the campaign worker who urges his local party official to rent a sound truck before the election. After numerous pleas, the ward boss relents. Come Election Day, the party captures the White House, Congress and most of the country. At the victory celebrations, the lowly aide rushes up to his superior and says, “What’d I tell ya? It was the truck!” Likewise, the importance of advertising in a political campaign can be exaggerated. But what Reagan did this year was use two sound trucks for the price of one.

—By James Kelly. Reported by Douglas Brew and John E. Yang/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com