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The Rise and Fall of Madison Avenue

According to author Joe McGinnis, Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign elevated the Madison Avenue advertising executive to new heights in presidential politics. As McGinnis describes in his well-known account of the campaign, The Selling of the President, 1968, Nixon relied on “a group of young men attuned to the political uses of television” who transformed a “grumpy, cold, and aloof” candidate into an image that appealed to a broad swath of voters.69 Leading the effort was Harry Treleaven, a former vice president at the J. Walter Thompson agency who, in a memo to the campaign, pushed for “imaginative approaches” and “contemporary techniques” to communicate Nixon’s strengths while at the same time avoiding “any obvious gimmicks that say ‘Madison Ave. at work here.’ ”70 According to McGinnis, Treleaven and Nixon were made for each other. Politics and advertising were both a kind of con game, so it came as no surprise that “politicians and advertising men should have discovered one another.”71 With the increasing sophistication of television campaigns since Eisenhower, those responsible for media strategy became a central part of the candidate’s inner circle. As McGinnis put it, “The ad men ... were given a suite upstairs.”72

If Treleaven represented the political rise of the adman, his desire to avoid the appearance of Madison Avenue “gimmicks” is revealing. In fact, the 1968 election marks the beginning of a decline in the political influence of big advertising firms. During the 1950s and 1960s, commercial agencies jockeyed with one another to land a presidential campaign just as they competed over lucrative corporate accounts. By the 1970s, however, Madison Avenue had mostly turned away from politics. This transition sheds important light on the growth of the political consulting industry, especially the comparative advantage consultants enjoyed over their competitors for control of political work. In particular, advertising firms were less suited to the partisan nature of campaigns than were the political consultants who eventually replaced them.

Initially, political campaigns attracted advertising firms in search of new sources of revenue and a degree of prestige that came from working on a presidential contest. Surveys conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) showed that station charges for political programs grew at an annual rate of almost 10 percent each year between 1956 and 1968. To put this in perspective, commercial TV ad revenue grew by a modest 2 percent annually, and overall campaign costs remained essentially unchanged during this same period. Much of this growth in political spending on television came from ads, which registered a fivefold increase in real terms between 1956 and 1968.73

As television spending rose, so did the money flowing to advertising agencies responsible for the production and placement of campaign commercials. In 1952, two firms, Joseph Katz and Company and the Kudner Agency, each billed more than $1 million in ads to the national Democratic and Republican committees, respectively.74

In fact, advertising agencies earned comparable sums earlier in the twentieth century for handling newspaper publicity and radio broadcasts on behalf of the national parties. What changed with the advent of television, however, was that advertising agencies exercised greater control over the content and character of the campaign as presidential candidates and national party committees turned to large commercial advertising firms to handle the creation, production, and placement of political media on a contract basis.

Advertising firms appeared to be a natural place to locate such expertise. Advertisers had ample experience with national campaigns for consumer products and services, and they possessed the creative insight and technical know-how to produce the kind of punchy, memorable ads suitable for television. Most large agencies also knew how to integrate market research and media production, translating survey data into crafted messages that grabbed the attention of the consumer (and voter). As one experienced adman put it, the purpose of an opinion poll is not to find out which candidate voters prefer; rather, surveys could reveal “what [the voters] are troubled about and what are the issues.”75 Political campaigns also offered advertising agencies an additional source of revenue. When Democrats announced the selection of Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli, Inc. to handle advertising for the 1960 presidential campaign, the deal was expected to produce about $3 million in extra billings for the firm, or around one-quarter of its annual reve- nue.76 In 1968, the executive in charge of the Nixon account speculated that “total billing could run anywhere from $4 million to $15 million.”77 Signing on to a presidential campaign also raised the profile of an agency as newspaper coverage of the advertising industry routinely included information about which firms were retained by political clients, especially in presidential years.78

However, the growing political prominence of advertising firms also led to concerns about inappropriate influence over the issue positions taken by candidates and elected officials. Although the advertising industry worked hard to avoid such perceptions, close association between a politician and an advertising agency could present a political liability nevertheless.79 During the Eisenhower years, for example, White House critics charged that advertisers dictated how the administration interacted with the public. In 1957, former president Harry

Truman criticized a televised address by President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles by quipping that the initials of the advertising firm BBD&O (which handled Ike’s television needs in 1952 and 1956) stood for “Bunko, Bull, Deceit, and Obfuscation.”80 In fact, both parties relied on advertising firms for election advice, and both parties sought to avoid the appearance that admen played an outsize role in crafting political strategy. Thus, the Republican Party worked hard “to dissociate itself from any stigma that may be attached to Madison Avenue.”81 Similarly, Democratic operatives actively denied “that Madison Avenue is about to take over the policy making function.”82 Nevertheless, charges of “hucksterism” worried the industry, and in 1968 its main trade group, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), saw fit to issue the thirty-one-page “Manual of Political Campaign Advertising” that included a code of ethics.83

These challenges point toward an inherent tension between the organization of advertising as a commercial enterprise and the inherently partisan nature of political work. Put simply, the appearance that a firm had a partisan leaning could be bad for business. Corporate clients, for example, might rethink their relationship with an agency that was perceived to be on the “wrong side” of the political divide. This proved to be a greater challenge for Democrats, who sometimes found it difficult to secure professional advertising services. Because most corporate executives leaned Republican, it could be risky if the firm took on a Democratic client.84 Another problem was that an agency might align with one party or another, but its employees could hold a variety of political opinions and affiliations. This raised the possibility that staff working on a campaign might hold partisan views that diverged from those of the candidate their firm was hired to help elect. Fears that this might lead to a halfhearted effort (or worse) prompted the Republican National Committee to establish its own advertising firm for the i960 presidential campaign. The organization, called Campaign Associates, hired admen from a number of top firms to work for the duration of the campaign.85 Although some criticized the plan as unwise from a practical standpoint, leading Republicans argued that the idea made political sense.86 As Daniel Riesner, chairman of the executive committee of the National Republican Club, explained, “The loyalty of people working on a particular political account in an agency is always in question.” With the creation of Campaign Associates, Riesner explained, “the Republican party is assured that the workers in its ad vineyards are of [a] friendly political persuasion.”87 The experiment of a party-sponsored firm proved short-lived, however, and in 1963 the Republicans hired the Leo Burnett Company of Chicago to handle their advertising account for the upcoming presidential campaign.88 In 1968, Republicans adopted an “anchor and loan” system in which staff from a variety of firms worked on a temporary basis for the lead agency that was responsible for the overall campaign.89

In other words, advertising firms proved to be ill-suited for political work. Despite the financial resources presidential campaigns devoted to television advertising, for most firms the monetary rewards paled in comparison to what they earned from their corporate accounts. In the five presidential elections between 1952 and 1968, the total money spent on campaign commercials accounted for less than 1 percent of television advertising revenue.90 David McCall, who ran John Lindsay’s campaign in 1965 for New York City mayor, warned that “no good advertising agency is terribly well served financially” by working for a candidate, especially when senior staff time was siphoned off from major accounts that ultimately paid much better than a political campaign.91 Whereas commercial clients produced a revenue stream that could last for years, political campaigns were fleeting and unpredictable. As McCall colorfully put it, “Instead of a marriage of year-in, year-out budgets and relationships, the agency finds itself in a torrid affair with a demanding mistress who wants it day and night and then in the second week of November has gone off with another man for four years.”92 Of course, this assumed the agency actually got paid. Win or lose, candidates were often unable or unwilling to pay their bills after Election Day.93 Even the AAAA handbook advised that ad agencies “get cash in advance” to avoid being stiffed by political clients.94 As Congressional Quarterly observed in 1968, many advertising firms simply decided to forgo working on political campaigns given “the uncertainty of payment and the prospect of losing commercial customers.”95

These organizational and financial challenges opened the door to specialist consultants better suited to the expectations and risks of political work.96 Unlike ad agencies, for example, consultants readily identified themselves as partisans and, with very few exceptions, restricted themselves to working for candidates from one party or the other. In fact, partisanship paid. Developing a reputation within party circles connected consultants to a broad network of potential customers throughout the country and at different levels of political office. As one consultant explained, working on behalf of a candidate also entailed working with “the national committee, the finance committee, the boosters club, [and] the whole range of party professionals.” Consequently, a lack of partisan loyalty (or its appearance) could undermine trust between a consultant and the client, causing “some degree, not of hostility, but of hesitancy about someone who was ... playing both sides of the island in a given year.”97 This willingness to devote oneself to a party and its candidates year in and year out clearly distinguished consultants from the advertising executive who took on the occasional political campaign.

By specializing in political work, consultants claimed that they better understood the dynamics of a race, differentiating their expertise from what an advertising firm could provide. Some consultants, for example, likened elections to a “one-day sale” that required “a whole different kind of strategic mind” than an advertising campaign an agency might roll out over several months.98 Not only was the speed quicker in politics, but the stakes were higher. “My candidates couldn’t afford the long deliberations and goofy people [in advertising],” veteran consultant Ray Strother observed. “Their lives are on the line.” Moreover, unlike a commercial product, a candidate is not “looking for a 12-percent market share, they’re looking for a 50-percent market share, and they have to get it in about 6 weeks.”99 Stu Spencer put it more starkly: “I don’t think that the big [advertising] agencies ... have the stomach for what you have to go through in the political process.”100 This was especially the case when dealing with candidates and their inner circle of family and friends who had their own ideas about how to run a campaign.

In addition, consultants saw their work on behalf of a candidate as fundamentally different from advertising a product. More than simply producing an artful commercial, consultants claimed that they could crystallize voters’ concerns into a convincing message the candidate would ride to an Election Day victory. According to Walter DeVries, advertisers just “didn’t understand politics.”101 In part, DeVries argued, this was because ad agencies operated on a model of broadcasting intended to secure mass appeal. Even if a commercial was aimed at a specific demographic, advertisers generally hoped to reach as wide an audience as possible. Consultants approached things differently, targeting candidate appeals to specific audiences and using specialized tools to identify where critical blocs of voters lived and what issues would likely get them to the polls (or decide to stay at home).102 In sum, political consultants offered candidates a level of campaign strategy and advice that advertising firms were either unwilling or unable to provide. Specialization reinforced these claims of comparative advantage. As Joe Napolitan put it: “It’s like if you want to have a repair job done on your heart, it’s better to go to a hospital that does 1,000 of them a year than go to a hospital that does 10.”103

 
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