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  • Roundtable on Political Advertising
  • Jerry Della Femina (bio), Donny Deutsch (bio), Stuart Ewen (bio), Montague Kern (bio), Burt Manning (bio), David Paletz (bio), Randall Rothenberg (bio), Fath Davis Ruffins (bio), and James Twitchell (bio)

It’s now a little more than 30 years since Joe McGinnis published The Selling of the President1 and placed political advertising in the national consciousness. What has been the broad effect of this form of communication on American culture?


I think its significance diminishes as each year goes by. I don’t think political advertising will ever decide a national campaign again. The days of the ‘64 Goldwater commercial2, “Daisies,”3 or even the “Willie Horton”4 of 1988 have passed. Political spots are a smaller and smaller and smaller slice of what people take in compared to, say, seeing candidates on the late shows and the early shows. On a local level, political advertising will continue to decide elections, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the day again that it happens on a national level. The fact is that we also have media-savvy people in our society, and they’re just not going to be swayed by a 30-second message. Another reason is that there really is no national advertising any longer.


I couldn’t agree more with Donny. Political advertising is just taking a smaller and smaller slice of our attention. And, you know, has it changed since The Selling of the President? Well, it’s more like the movie Network than The Selling of the President, really — the insane things that are going on. What have we had in the last few years? Oh, we had an impeachment, we had the president admitting to doing certain things in office. Advertising can’t come close to matching what’s going on there. And then the consumer, really, basically, the voter — I’m calling the voter a consumer — is punch-drunk, not unlike boxers who have taken too many shots to the head and start to walk on their heels and mumble and can’t put things together. We’re dealing with, certainly in the political area, a totally punch-drunk consumer who has no idea where he’s going to get hit and from what direction he’s going to get hit. And so advertising has very little to do with national elections. Donny is completely right about that.


You equated consumer and voter, and I think that’s an interesting equation. Is there a difference between the two?


No, we are all selling products. We are all trying to sell something. But let’s face it, we could not sell any product from any account that I have in my office, by trying to sell the product the way people try to sell politicians. It would be forbidden. I can’t lie about the product.


You’d be put in jail.


I’d go to jail if I ever tried to represent a product like candidates are represented. You saw something just the other night during the debates, where one lie followed another lie and another lie. Silly lies by one candidate, and the other candidate probably exaggerated the same thing and you probably weren’t watching him because you were so sure the other guy was a liar.


Who was the lair?


If you checked the papers today, they’re saying that the little old lady with the Winnebago who was picking up cans5 — it turns out that the Winnebago was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and she did not drive by herself. She had four or five campaign aides in the car and it turns out that her son has been trying to get her to take some money.


To me, one of the things that’s really interesting is the amount of research that is being done now, not about political substance but about political sizzle. I agree with what both Donny and Jerry in terms of the impact of political advertising — if, by that, we mean paid-for, placed political advertising. Look back in history to the 1930s...

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