The United States has a long history of political comics, so how come animation isnt used in Presidential advertising campaigns? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman queries the wisdom
You like Ike I like Ike Everybody likes Ike! Hang out the banner, bang the drum We'll take Ike to Washington! - Eisenhower TV ad, 1952
There was nothing very different about the spot's animation; it was simple, stylized, and presented in black and white, quite typical for a commercial of its time. There was nothing notably controversial in it; true, some Democratic politicians were caricatured as donkeys, but vicious smears were likely not intended. The above ditty, sung by a peppy chorus, was no challenge to Gershwin. Political historians would never ascribe Eisenhowers resounding victory over Adlai Stevenson to this ads influence; in fact, this spot was probably among the lesser weapons in Dwight Davids campaign arsenal. Yet, this cheerful campaign ad, run on national TV during the 1952 Presidential election year, remains to this day one of the most unusual animated commercials ever broadcast to the American public. In fact, its safe to say that in nearly half a century there has never been another one like it. What makes this ad so unusual? Simply this: It is virtually the only animated spot ever used to help sell a candidate for the Presidency.
True, there was a film called Hell Bent for Election produced in 1944; this 14-minute film was made in support of President Roosevelts campaign at the behest of the United Auto Workers. The UAW hired a firm called Industrial Films and Poster Service, the progenitors of United Productions of America (UPA). The film (directed by Chuck Jones) was extremely successful but it, too is an isolated example of animation used in the service of a political campaign. Why should this be? The reasons for the lack of animated campaign ads must surely be cultural, and specifically American. Or are they?
Thomas Nasts famous cartoon of the "Inflation Donkey." 19th Century History of Cartoons. Father of American political cartoons, Thomas Nast.
Animation Can Sell Anything
Since the advent of television in the 1940s, advertising agencies and animators have been comfortable bedfellows. With the appearance of affordable TV sets in the early 1950s, audiences made acquaintance with the Hamms Beer Bear, the Muriel Cigar Lady, Bert and Harry Piel, Markie Maypo, and sundry other ink-and-paint pitchmen who entertained us during breaks in Playhouse 90 and Our Miss Brooks. Some of these ads were made by famous animators such as Tex Avery and Shamus Culhane after they had assumed independent status from their respective studios. The next three decades witnessed a deluge of animated commercials, and they were used to sell every conceivable product that free-market capitalism could cram into our homes, garages, bodies and psyches. During the past ten years, the technological whirlwind known as computer graphic imaging took animated advertising up several levels, making it possible for 3D Goldfish crackers to cavort in a simulated environment or a kids face to morph into a slice of watermelon. Anything imaginable can now be sold more creatively than ever...with the exception of candidates for the Presidency.
This tendency is puzzling indeed. After all, this country does have a rich, often hilarious history of representing its politics in cartoon form. Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is credited as the father of American political cartoons. Nast made his reputation during the Civil War and created our rudimentary cartoon symbols; Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant, and the Democratic donkey all flowed from his imaginative pen. Nast was followed by visual commentators such as Bill Mauldin, Pat Oliphant, Herbert L. Block, Jeff McNelly and Garry Trudeau, to name but a few.
Even the smallest of hometown newspapers makes room for a daily editorial cartoon, and frequently one good panel is worth a thousand filibusters. So...after 140 years of political cartooning, 100 years of animation, and 60 years of creative animated advertising only Citizens for Eisenhower and the UAW saw fit to run an animated cartoon spot?
The first assumption we could logically make is: Animated spots have been proven to lead to a candidates defeat. Not! Both FDR and DDE won their respective elections in 44 and 52; if anything, animated commercials would seem to boost a campaign. Dead end here. Could it be that the Presidency is too serious a subject to be associated with animation? That might have made a more valid point; historically, the President was rarely shown in American cartoons. The aforementioned FDR was caricatured several times (he even sang in the 1933 Walter Lantz cartoon Confidence), but by and large the Chief was shown from behind, sitting imperiously at his desk or depicted in shadow, suggested only by the presence of an arm or hand. Even the great iconoclast John Kricfalusi (in his 1992 short Powdered Toast Man) did not opt to depict Ronald Reagan nipped by his own pants; a generic stand in took a zipper for the Gipper.
The New Presidential Image
On the other hand, over the next few years Presidents were recognizably animated, especially after Steven Spielberg got into the cartoon game. Not only did Bill Clinton play the sax for the enjoyment of Wakko, Yakko and Dot Warner, but rivals such as Ross Perot got the ink-and-paint treatment as well. Spielberg was following the Warners tradition of celebrity caricature and these actions certainly did nothing to damage or belittle the Presidency. Todays Presidential candidates do the late night talk show circuit, yakking it up with ex-comedians. Besides, from the halls of the Hasty Pudding Club to the set of Saturday Night Live, the Oval Office has been the subject of hearty lampoonery for decades. How could a simple animated spot with a positive spin on the candidate hurt any ambitious pol? No, the reasons we seek must lie elsewhere.
Well, if not the candidates themselves perhaps the bugaboos are the Presidential campaign platforms and the weighty decisions we are asked to make about them. One should be well-informed, take these national issues seriously, and then make sensible and sober choices for the good of ones country, right? This stance still does not preclude an animated pitch. Didnt the public respond to such crucial matters as supporting the nation during WWII...even when it was Bugs Bunny who enjoined us to buy war bonds? What about the response from the American people when they were asked to pay their income taxes...by Donald Duck? According to Time magazine 37% of those questioned after seeing the Donald Duck short The New Spirit (1942) said that the film increased their willingness to pay "Taxes...to beat the Axis!" It has been reported that after these two spots hit the theaters during the war years Americans bought more bonds and paid their taxes in greater numbers than ever. John McCain and Bill Bradley should have had such luck.
Any contention that animation and politics simply don't belong in the same boat to D.C. can also be dented, if not seriously damaged, by that old fave of Gen X, Schoolhouse Rock. It was proven to thousands of children and parents that the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, female suffrage, and the passing of bills into law were fitting subjects for animated discourse. If government, civics, and political history can be taught in such a sprightly and memorable manner (Schoolhouse Rock has remained a favorite through five Presidencies), why cant candidates and their issues be as indelibly presented?
Here Roosevelt has a flag draped around him, looking convinced that he is in fact heroic. Political cartoon entitled "I am Heroic" by Rollin Kirby (1916). Uncle Sam molds himself a center spot in the world of political cartoons. "Strictly In It" by Cunningham (1909).
Just Plain Silly
My "devils advocate" arguments against animated election spots are growing fewer, but are not yet exhausted. A final rationale might be that the political realities of a Presidential election call for more reserve and dignity than a cartoon spot could lend them. This is also nonsense, since there has been no shortage of tasteless and embarrassing live spots over the years. Does anyone remember the 1964 Johnson campaign ads in which a vote for Goldwater equaled blowing up a little girl in a nuclear explosion? Or the hilarious spot aired during 1988 in which candidate Michael Dukakis, arrayed in full battle gear, sheepishly poked his preppy head out of a tank? Anyone who remembers the 1968 election campaign will recall the efforts put forth by Frank Shakespeare and Roger Ailes of the Nixon campaign team, brilliantly described by Joe McGiniss in his book The Selling of the President 1968. It was they and their associates who presented us with one flag-draped Rockwellian campaign spot after another, proudly showing This Great Nation and Its People while an unseen Nixon droned uninspired platitudes in the background. This sort of presentation has become so cliché that the Cartoon Network was able to do a sidesplitting parody of them for their Cartoon Campaign 2000. It is uncertain if Ailes (who is now on the Bush team) could have gotten Scooby-Doo into the Oval Office, but one thing is certain -- the Nixon spots were little more than hollow shills, more fit for selling lawn care products or smoked turkey than our national leader. If dignity was the point, these ads fell far short.
All right, then, lets admit it. There are no good reasons why animation cant be used to promote candidates, and it is in fact negligence on the part of campaign handlers that keeps the animated election spot off our screens. What these sultans of spin dont seem to realize is, an important tool is being discarded almost without consideration. In issue 4.8 of Animation World Magazine(November, 1999), I noted in my column, "Toons in Training," that animation is a powerful medium for training because information which is encoded in novel form tends to gain more attention, reinforces verbal messages and results in better memory retention. These are neuropsychological facts and are not likely to be altered by the so-called gravity of a Presidential election. The candidate is robbed of a powerful campaign tool, the animation industry misses a chance to demonstrate its powers in a new medium of advertising, and the electorate loses out on the possibility of examining a candidates platform through a novel mode of presentation. Talk about government waste!
Ah, but what might have been! Would it not have been entertaining, at least, to have turned on the TV and seen the following (with all due apologies to Dave Frishberg and Schoolhouse Rocky):
Im just a BushYes, Im only a BushCant you give my campaign a push?Well, its a long, long journeyTo Pennsylvania AveIts a long, long waitFor those votes Ive gotta have,But I know Ill be the Prez someday...
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.