1952 Eisenhower VS. Stevenson

"Never Had It So Good"

The “Eisenhower Answers America” ads, conceived and created by Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates and Company, were as bold in conception as they were simple in execution. The campaign created forty “spot ads,” each consisting of a question from an ordinary voter and a response from the candidate. The answers were filmed first, in a midtown Manhattan studio, with General Eisenhower reading off of cue cards. The questions were filmed later, read by tourists who were scouted in front of Radio City Music Hall. Eisenhower is filmed in the elevated position; the questioners all look up at him, establishing a personal connection but also keeping him in the position of the hero. The ads stick to three key points: high prices, the war in Korea, and gridlock in Washington. Yet the spots are clearly selling more than just the answers to these problems; they are selling Eisenhower’s personality. The campaign spent nearly two million dollars to saturate the airwaves with these ads in twelve key states during a three-week period in October. Adlai Stevenson’s campaign manager George Ball decried the effort to sell Eisenhower in the same manner as “soap, ammoniated toothpaste, hair tonic, or bubble gum.” Stevenson was the first—and last—candidate to refuse to appear in TV ads.


Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate - Transcript
"Never Had it So Good," Eisenhower, 1952


MALE NARRATOR: Eisenhower answers America.

MAN: General, the Democrats are telling me I never had it so good.

EISENHOWER: Can that be true when America is billions in debt, and prices have doubled and taxes break our backs, and we are still fighting in Korea? It's tragic. And it's time for a change.


"Never Had It So Good," Citizens for Eisenhower, 1952

Maker: Rosser Reeves for Ted Bates and Co.

Video courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952/never-had-it-so-good (accessed July 18, 2024).


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1952 Eisenhower Stevenson Results
President Harry S. Truman entered 1952 with his popularity plummeting. The Korean War was dragging into its third year, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade was stirring public fears of an encroaching "Red Menace," and the disclosure of widespread corruption among federal employees rocked the administration. After losing the New Hampshire primary to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who had chaired a nationally televised investigation of organized crime in 1951, President Truman announced on March 29, 1952, that he would not seek re-election. Truman threw his support behind Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who repeatedly declined to run but was eventually drafted as the Democratic nominee on the strength of his eloquent keynote speech at the convention.

Stevenson proved to be no match for the Republican nominee, war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played a key role in planning the Allied victory in World War II. A poll in March 1952 found Eisenhower the most admired living American, and in November he won a landslide victory on the basis of his pledge to clean up "the mess in Washington" and end the Korean War.
Dwight D. Eisenhower for president
Richard Nixon for vice president

"It’s Time for a Change"

In 1952, there was no precedent in presidential elections for the use of television "spot" advertising—short commercials that generally run between twenty seconds and a minute. Governor Thomas Dewey, declaring spots "undignified," rejected their use in his 1948 presidential campaign. In 1952, most campaign strategists preferred thirty-minute blocks of television time for the broadcast of campaign speeches. What distinguished Eisenhower’s campaign from Stevenson’s was that it relied more on spot ads than on speeches. The campaign pioneered their use with a series of ads titled "Eisenhower Answers America."

The idea for the spots came from Madison Avenue advertising executive Rosser Reeves, who had created the M&M "melts in your mouth, not in your hands" campaign. Reeves convinced Eisenhower that spot ads placed immediately before or after such popular TV programs as I Love Lucy would reach more viewers, and at a much lower cost, than half-hour speeches.

In each of the simple, twenty-second spots, Eisenhower responded to a question from an "ordinary citizen." The questioners—tourists enlisted near Radio City Music Hall—were photographed looking up, as though gazing at a hero. Eisenhower’s folksy responses, which he read from large cue cards, were used to create forty commercials, all filmed in one day in a Manhattan studio. The spots were designed to establish Eisenhower as a plainspeaking man in touch with the people. They repeatedly focused on three issues cited by polls as the voters’ main concerns: the Korean War, corruption in government, and the high cost of living.

Adlai Stevenson for president
John Sparkman for vice president

"You Never Had It So Good"

Speaking about the role of television advertising in election campaigns, Adlai Stevenson said, "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence. This isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive." Stevenson aide George Ball bitterly predicted that "presidential campaigns will eventually have professional actors as candidates."

Stevenson based his television strategy on a series of eighteen half-hour speeches that aired on Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:30. The goal was to take advantage of Stevenson’s oratorical skills and build his national recognition by developing a regular audience for the broadcasts. But the lateness of the time slot cut down on the number of potential viewers, and the actual audience consisted largely of people already predisposed to vote for Stevenson.

Stevenson’s spot ads were little more than illustrated radio spots. The crude visuals generally consisted of a single shot, such as the simple cartoon drawing that illustrates the Ike and Bob ad, which implied that an Eisenhower presidency would be under the control of conservative Republican Robert Taft. Rather than defend the Truman administration, the ads attempted to distance Stevenson from it. Several of them reminded voters of how bad things were during the Depression, presided over by the last Republican president, Herbert Hoover.

Stevenson never warmed up to the medium during the campaign. He refused to appear in his own spots, and his speeches, which were aired live, frequently ran too long; the broadcast would fade out while he was still talking. In his election-eve special, when his son tells him, "I like watching television better than being on it," Stevenson replies, "I guess that goes for all of us, doesn’t it?"

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