Unconventional, bizarre, unsettling.
You’ve likely heard these adjectives tossed about by political columnists and TV pundits throughout the 2016 election cycle. On the surface, the Twitter insults, threatening chants, and three-ring press conferences (or lack thereof) certainly seem like unorthodox methods for reaching the American populace. But just a cursory read of a U.S. History textbook might have you thinking otherwise. Could this year’s presidential contenders actually be guilty of playing it safe? Are they merely putting a contemporary spin on the truly groundbreaking campaign content strategies of years past?
Join us for a stroll down memory lane and find out which presidential candidate was really the first to make campaign content strategy great again.
The First Mobile Happy Hour
Imagine it’s 1840 and you’re lucky enough to vote in the presidential election. Now imagine a team of Whig Party surrogates shows up in your town handing out bottles of hard cider while rolling a giant paper-and-tin ball scribbled with their nominee’s campaign slogans. Free liquor and entertainment! Suddenly life on the prairie doesn’t seem so dull and you’re casting your ballot for William Henry Harrison. Just like a lot of elected officials, Harrison never lived up to the hype—mostly because he died just 30 days after taking office. Yet our ninth president’s inventive approach to connecting with voters endures. In the midst of an economic depression, Harrison and his party, the Whigs, became a source of joy for Americans. In addition to the traveling open bar, Harrison’s go-to market strategy included catchy campaign songs that painted him as a modest man of the people, for the people. The humble, common man message was reinforced via Harrison-branded swag like flags, plates, and sewing boxes. In reality, Harrison was a wealthy aristocrat who lived a lifestyle of luxury, but fact checking wasn’t really a thing in 1840.
When it comes to campaigning, nothing beats face time—most of the time. William Jennings Bryan had this revelation in the 1896 election and launched an unprecedented train tour with hopes of swaying voters with his populist message. Although Bryan ended up giving over 600 speeches during the tour, it was his opponent William McKinley’s “front porch” campaign that ultimately prevailed. When compared to Bryan’s grueling trek across the nation, McKinley’s “I’ll campaign from my house” strategy seems lazy and uninspired. But upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see why McKinley became our 25th president. McKinley invited delegations of supporters from across the country to travel to his Canton, Ohio home and publicly pledge their support…all in front of the watching eye of the press. Who was the stronger candidate? The one roaming the country begging for votes or the one with flocks of enthusiastic supporters willing to stump for their candidate on his front lawn?
For President Convict No. 9653
“Lock her up” has become the rallying cry of those who would rather see Hillary Clinton behind bars than on the campaign trail. And while both Trump and Clinton have been accused of engaging in behavior warranting criminal investigation, it’s worth noting that being taken away in handcuffs doesn’t automatically spell the end of a presidential bid. In 1920 Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs set up his campaign headquarters at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Debs was serving time for speaking out against World War I, yet he still managed to garner close to a million votes that November. The union leader and activist had already become a household name at that point—it was his fifth time running for president. And with each bid, Debs never strayed from his core socialist message, demonstrating how a strong brand can inject vigor into even the most compromised of strategies.
Style and Substance
“You’re only as good as you look on TV.” It’s likely Richard Nixon heard those words during his first bid for the presidency. On September 26, 1960, the then vice-president faced off with relative newcomer John F. Kennedy, ushering in a new era in American presidential politics—that of the televised debate. Recently released from the hospital, Nixon’s poor posture and sickly appearance did not play well for the camera and contrasted sharply with Kennedy’s poise and confidence. While radio listeners of the debate thought Nixon had won, the estimated 70 million TV viewers saw Kennedy as the night’s victor, proving the medium truly is the message. Unlike his opponent, who treated the debate as just another campaign stop, Kennedy had predicted the power TV would have on elections and prepped up until the last minute. That November the Massachusetts Senator narrowly edged out his more experienced opponent. When asked about his victory, Kennedy replied, “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.”
Field of Fears
Who can be trusted with the country’s nuclear codes? Relaying the message that the opposing candidate is unfit for such a weighty task has played out again and again this election. But it’s an unoriginal scare tactic. Presidential Lyndon B. Johnson and the creative folks at DDB first mastered this strategy during the 1964 presidential election with their “Daisy” ad. Arguably the most effective political television attack ad in history, Daisy portrayed the dangers of nuclear of war if Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater became president. Some 50 plus years later, Daisy validates the essential role paid media and media relations play in a comprehensive content strategy. The spot was technically only broadcast once before being pulled. But that one airing generated so much controversy that members of the press were practically driven to replay the ad over and over again. Although the Johnson campaign faced accusations of fearmongering, the incumbent president swept to victory in November, which historians and pundits attribute largely to “Daisy.”
Inciting fear of nuclear war, capitalizing on an emerging medium, handing out branded booze—these all proved to be highly effective content strategies in campaigns of yesteryear. Just as the above candidates succeeded in unearthing original ways to capture the attention of the American electorate, the 2016 White House wannabees are proving they too will stop at nothing to impress voters—even if that means resurrecting the winning messages of their political idols.