Tony Schwartz: The Man Who Invented Political Spots
An exclusive M&V interview with a Media Pioneer
Tony Schwartz jokingly calls ABC, NBC and CBS the new political parties. Invariably, the remark draws a chuckle. But Schwartz isn't kidding. He's making a point about just how central the role of the media – particularly the electronic media– has become to the electoral process.
Shaking hands and kissing babies and getting out among the voters no longer means much to politicians. Today, says Schwartz, campaigns are won or lost in the living room, courtesy of the media. And he should know. He played a large part in shaping the current state of affairs. "Tony Schwartz, as much as any person, laid the foundation for modem political advertising,' says Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), one of hundreds of politicians for whom Schwartz has created ads over the past three decades. "I think he's one of the most brilliant, incisive people I've ever met."
Remember the Daisy TV spot that sank Barry Goldwater in 1964? The ad showed a little girl pulling the petals off a daisy, followed by an ominous voice counting down from 10 followed by a horrific nuclear explosion and Lyndon Johnson's voice speaking about the need to love one another to avoid nuclear war. Schwartz created it.
Or the spot in which the only response to the question of what sort of president Spiro Agnew might make was a voice hysterical with laughter? Schwartz created that one for the Humphrey-Muskie campaign, and, like Daisy it caused a stir. Both spots also illustrate the philosophy that underlies the Schwartz approach: Forget about trying to impart information about your candidate. Voters already have an opinion and have no experience of solutions anyway. Instead, create sensory impressions to evoke an emotional response.
"Tony Schwartz, as much as any person, laid the foundation for modem political advertising,"
Use "presearch"– Schwartz is fond of coining words – to zero in on what voters are thinking, structure ads to connect to those concerns and leave the impression that your candidate also feels deeply about the problem and will do something about it when the time is right. "We are in the business of using public relations in a new manner, not in the old terms of press relations," he says. "We are using PR as 'peoples' reaction,' personal retrieval of feelings and associations."
But Schwartz, a rather soft-spoken man with a teddy-bear-like persona, is far more than just a commercial-maker. He is also a fervent believer in grass-roots media activism. The same media reality that is used to push presidential candidates and billion-dollar companies can be used by average citizens to get results where they live, he maintains. And if you use local radio – his favorite medium – it costs far less than you might imagine and can be far more effective than you think.
As an example, he points to a spot he created for the Center for Science in the Public Interest chiding McDonald's for frying its foods in fatty beef tallow rather than more healthful vegetable oil. He addressed it to "the chairman of the board at McDonald's," and broadcast it on the radio in Chicago where the corporation is headquartered.
The point was to 'shame" the individual with the power to alter the situation into taking action. And it worked. "Shame is one of the most powerful means of social control," Schwartz says.
Media activism techniques like these are described in a Schwartz-produced video tape that elaborates his media philosophy: Guerrilla Media: A Citizen's Guide to Using Electronic Media for Social Change. The techniques are usable by anyone with a little know-how, the will to use it and "a Radio Shack recorder," according to Schwartz.
As he says: "Local air time is surprisingly cheap. The best thing about radio is that people were born without earlids. You can't close your ears to it."