About a decade ago a new commercial art form began to fill America's airwaves: the political advertisement. Suddenly candidates, their ties unloosened, were filmed like movie stars, earnestly talking with real people on the campaign trail. Catchy tunes with sexy slogans advertised politicans the same way laundry detergent and cars were sold. Corps of consultants, advisers and pollsters began searching for media gurus who could transform their candidate into appealing packages whose messages would encourage people to vote for him on election day.
In last year's campaigns, some media experts thought they sensed a turn toward harsher, tougher ads. "The ads reinforced an existing belief about politicians," said one professional Republican consultant. "So it's much easier to be negative now."
Presidential hopefuls are beginning to choose their media generals for the primary battles of 1980. This is the first of an occasional series on "The Media Masters," the men and women who will determine the political commercials of the 1980s.
Jimmy Carter was in trouble in the final weeks of the 1976 campaign. His commanding lead over Gerald Ford in the polls had evaporated, a sense of panic was spreading among his supporters.
Eighteen days before the election, at 7 in the morning, candidate Carter walked into the Manhattan office of Democratic media wizard Tony Schwartz and sat down in front of a television camera. Forty minutes later Schwartz, 55, had finished making a handful of political commercials, the first of which were delivered to TV stations by 9:30 that morning.
"I felt that nowhere had he been speaking directly into your home," says Schwartz of his decision to film Carter up close as he spoke straight into a camera. "He'd always been photographed speaking to someone else. Secondly, I felt he hadn't looked presidential, hadn't been in a suit. And people, especially in major cities, wanted to feel this was a man of stature. Until I came into the campaign they were using TV as a window on the world rather than a door into your home. I put him into a one-to-one relationship with you as a voter."
Some people in Schwartz's business credit those last-minute ads with halting Carter's slide. An executive at the firm handling Gerald Ford's television commercials says the Schwartz treatment reversed a bland ad campaign masterminded by Gerald Rafshoon, a campaign that featured a homespun Carter, shirt open at the collar, strolling through fields or talking to groups of people. Schwartz thinks the obvious difference in the ads -- and a newspaper headline that read, "Carter Turns to NY Studio To Tape His Remaining TV Spots --" irritated Rafshoon who, according to Schwartz, "turned very, very hostile and tried to demean what we had done."
For his part, Rafshoon downplays Schwartz's contribution: "We used his studio for spots," he says. "He came up with a series of negative spots I didn't want to use... too heavy-handed. If he prefers to think he was the savior of the campaign, well..." The two men haven't spoken since.
Schwartz argues that voters "learn more about a candidate from commercials than anything else." Debates are just public slugfests, he says. Radio and television "are emotional mediums, the effect is the important thing."
Consider Schwartz's first -- and most famous -- political ad. It ran only once on television, he says, yet it is a classic in any textbook of campaign ads. Produced in 1964 for President Johnson, it provoked cries of foul play by LBJ's opponent, Barry Goldwater.
The commercial featured a little girl in a field counting petals on a daisy. As her count reached ten, the picture froze, an announcer's voice counted down to zero, and a nuclear explosion filled the screen. Johnson's voice says: "These are the stakes, to make a world in which all God's children can live, or to go into the darkness. Either we must love each other or we must die." And on a black screen, white letters read "On November 3rd, Vote for President Johnson."
Goldwater's name was never mentioned, but the spot hearkened to Goldwater's stance in support of using tactical atomic weapons. The impact of the commercial then, Schwartz feels, was in its power to evoke a feeling on the part of the viewer . Such an evocation he considers the essence of an effective commercial.
As a child in New York state, Schwartz was an amateur radio buff. That began a lifelong search for and study of sound, a fascination that continued when he worked as a young graphic artist in Manhattan in the 1940s. He collected folk songs from 46 countries. Then he decided to explore his own neighborhood, postal zone 14. He built a portable tape recorder (the country's first, he says) and began prowling the streets around his apartment where commercial broadcasting and recording studios were located. He taped children playing street games, the music of ethnic groups, churches, street parades and work songs. A family whose fortune stemmed from Sears, Roebuck funded his research for two years, and Schwartz produced 20 records of sounds, earning him a reputation as the "king of commercial sound." The "daisy commercial" in 1964 introduced him to political work.
"I don't do the type of spot where you follow the candidate around; I don't do cinema verite," says Schwartz. "I do head-on spots and symbolic spots." He also disdains jingles and slogans: "People," he says, "gain comfort from visual familiarity and discomfort from auditory repetition."
One of Schwartz's peculiarities is a dislike of travel. So he doesn't.He lectures all over the world sitting at a desk in his combination studio and office, a renovated Pentecostal Church on West 56th Street. From a microphone at his desk, he conducts seminars around the globe, orchestrating tapes and videotapes like a latter-day wizard of Oz. Only recently did he board an airplane, after extensive therapy, to visit his son in college in Maine.
Remarks Paul Wilson, a Republican media adviser: "It's hard for me to believe that someone who limits himself to New York can have a feel for the body politic."
But Schwartz, who did 16 other campaigns in addition to his Carter work in 1976, says, "I've done 300 Coca-Cola commercials and I've never been to Georgia. Inflation in New York is very similar to inflation in Chicago and Los Angeles. It's a question of how you keep in touch. If I were a campaign consultant, then I'd have to have a sense of the political problems, but I'm given a political problem by the consultant."
Last fall Schwartz masterminded one of the country's most bitter races, Charles Percy versus Alex Seith (Schwartz's candidate) for the Illinois Senate seat. To Percy's surprise, Seith pulled even with him in the polls in the final days of the campaign. That prompted him to make an unusual ad in which he told voters "I've got your message" about Washington's profligate ways.
For his part, Schwartz drew fire for a Seith ad played on some black radio stations. In the ad Percy was portrayed as a supporter of Earl Butz, whose derogatory statements about blacks cost him his job as secretary of agriculture. Percy followers said their man only wanted a return to some of Butz's agricultural policies, and said Seith was mudslinging.
But that campaign saw the Percy media also take the low road, which prompted some observers to suggest a trend toward more negative campaigns in the future. "It's not negative to tell the truth about someone," snaps Schwartz. And he adds that if he knew then what he learned shortly after the election, his spots would have been tougher.
When in Chicago, Schwartz says, Percy lives in an exclusive residence that discourages the presence of Jews, Catholics or blacks. "If I had it to do over again," says Schwartz -- who probably will have it to do over again someday -- "I'd really hit him on that."