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EXCERPT: ‘Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and The Rise of Celebrity Politics’

A reality star is now a major party presidential candidate, but it turns out, celebrity politics are not a new thing.

In Liking Ike, author David Haven Blake explores the crucial and often overlooked role that celebrities and advertising agencies had in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Even by today’s standards, many Americans will be surprised to learn that celebrities of the time were a constant presence in political strategies, and particularly in Eisenhower’s campaigns.

Using original interviews and archival material, Blake explains how Madison Avenue executives used celebrities as tools in politics as the age of Television began.  

You may read an excerpt below, and you can purchase the book here.


In March of 2010, Frank Gehry unveiled his new plans for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial across from the National Mall in Washington, DC. A bipartisan public commission had selected Gehry, one of the world’s most acclaimed architects, to memorialize the man who led the Allied Forces during World War II and then became the thirty-fourth president of the United States. From the outset, the commission sought a design that would both honor Eisenhower and “inspire generations with his devotion to public service, leadership, integrity, [and] life-long work ethic.” It was equally important, the commission stated, that the design reflect Eisenhower’s “total devotion to the values and processes of democracy,” the implication being that, of all his accomplishments, perhaps the greatest was his respect for the grassroots participation that makes up a democratic society.

Some memorials are made to commemorate, others to tell a story. Gehry’s proposal ignited controversy when the Eisenhower family publicly objected to the “romantic Horatio Alger notion” at the heart of his design. Although he would revise his plans multiple times, Gehry held fast to a narrative depiction of Ike’s life. In contrast to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, who heroically tower over the visitors to their memorials, Eisenhower appears in the most recent design as a young man sitting on a stone ledge with an image of the Kansas prairie behind him. From this informal perch, he looks upon two massive stone blocks, each one the backdrop for a sculpted scene from his adult life. In one, he is a general talking to troops before D-Day; in the other, he stands symbolically between representatives of the military and civilian needs of the country. From the beginning, the project design called for a digital component (called the E-Memorial) that would feature multiple images and video of Eisenhower and his times: cadets doing mathematics on a West Point blackboard, soldiers walking through the French countryside, the president waving to the crowds from a Cadillac El Dorado after his 1953 inauguration ceremony. With the aid of wireless electronics, these images would trace how this modest young man rose from the heartland to have an enormous impact on the twentieth century.

Among the ancillary images included in the E-memorial, a worthy addition would be an image of Eisenhower surrounded by celebrities. The designers could depict Eisenhower and a group of stars singing around a piano during the 1952 presidential campaign or Eisenhower’s filmed appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour to kick off 1955’s Armed Forces Week. Then there is Eisenhower in white tie, grinning with Bob Hope, Jane Powell, and Pearl Bailey, or Eisenhower laughing with Arnold Palmer on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club. In no way, of course, should these images rival the attention given to Eisenhower’s great achievements: the victory over European fascism, the peace in Korea, the booming postwar economy. However Eisenhower and his stars deserve their own commemorative treatment. Though the commission or his family might not agree, the images are as much a part of Eisenhower’s presidency as they are of the scrapbooks of these departed celebrities. As this book explains, they go hand-in-hand with Eisenhower’s commitment to the values and processes of democracy. They, too, should be engraved in our cultural memory.

To many, Dwight Eisenhower would be a surprising, even shocking, addition to the pantheon of celebrity-infused presidents and political campaigns. A humble plainsman, a soldier-citizen, a steadfast and grandfatherly head of state, he seems worlds away from such Hollywood-tinged presidents as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. When we see Ike’s grainy black-and-white image reviewing American troops in London, when we recall his warnings about the military-industrial complex, we are inclined to see a model of integrity and foresight rather than theatrical charm. And yet, no matter how durable his accomplishments, no matter how penetrating his vision, Eisenhower gave celebrities a curious role in promoting him as a political candidate. Guided by television pioneers and Madison Avenue advertising executives whom insiders dubbed “Mad Men,” he cultivated scores of famous supporters as a way of building the kind of broad-based support that had eluded Republicans for twenty years.

Eisenhower’s presidential campaigns were so saturated with stardom that they would astonish many Americans today. Broadway stars performed at jam-packed Madison Square Garden rallies designed to drum up enthusiasm for his candidacy. Roy Disney created an animated television commercial, and Irving Berlin composed a campaign theme song, turning the phrase “I Like Ike” into the most memorable political slogan in American history. Popular figures from the world of sports appeared at fundraising dinners and in television commercials touting Eisenhower’s record. Working with Madison Avenue executives, actors and actresses gave press conferences extolling the benefits of an Eisenhower presidency. Critics complained that all the advertisements and endorsements risked turning Eisenhower into a commodity, as if he were a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes being plugged by comedian Jack Benny. Far from objecting, Ike’s advisers invited such comparisons. As they described it, their job was to merchandise the man who was at once their client, their product, and their candidate. Television advertising, they explained, simply extended the reach of democracy.

During the same period, Eisenhower himself was developing into a congenial, media-savvy performer. Initially flustered by the tedium and distractions of being on camera, he grew to understand the demands of the presidency in the television age. He worked with Robert Montgomery, the former president of the Screen Actors Guild and the popular host of an eponymous hour-long drama series on NBC, to help improve his televised interviews and speeches. As producers, directors, and cameramen were figuring out how to maneuver their heavy equipment through the White House windows and hallways, Montgomery was teaching the president how to read from a teleprompter and appear more open and engaging. From his office in the West Wing, he developed camera angles and poses that would help Eisenhower seem youthful, invigorated, and authoritative on TV. Although he had been famous for well over a decade and had hired advisers to improve his communication skills, it was television that transformed Ike into a media celebrity. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded the president an honorary Emmy for his innovative use of the medium to communicate with the American people.

Liking Ike tells the story of how Eisenhower’s celebrity politics was developed on Madison Avenue, practiced in the White House, debated in the press, protested by his opponents, and then remade by subsequent generations of politicians and stars. It analyzes the ways that this most respected of leaders, a hero throughout much of the world, was drawn into the conflux of television, advertising, and political glamour that emerged in the 1950s. Not willing to stand purely on his credentials, Eisenhower agreed to the same set of promotional strategies that advertisers used to sell products like laundry detergent and shaving cream. Although they may seem obvious to us now, the systematic efforts to decorate a candidate with stardust were then perceived as being radically new, and the glitz surrounding Eisenhower’s campaigns aroused consternation and concern. To some at the time, the image-making seemed more appropriate for a movie star or talk show host than the Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “Get rid of the vaudeville, pretty-girl” embroidery, one editorialist advised, “and conduct the campaign on a level commensurate with the General’s intelligence and position.” But to leading Republicans and the advertising executives they hired, television made the power of celebrity endorsements appealing, and they were confident that this softer, glamorized version of politics would attract votes. The result was a vision of American politics in which publicity would become a principal site of democracy and voters would soon identify themselves as both an electorate and an audience. The rise of Eisenhower’s “star strategy” made for an odd historical juxtaposition. At the same time that Congress was investigating the influence of Communists in Hollywood and the film and broadcasting industries were blacklisting alleged subversives, advertising executives were seeking ways to bring conservative performers into the political spotlight. The irony did not trouble the advertising agencies that worked on Ike’s campaigns, for as they saw it, their task was not to politicize entertainment but to make politics more entertaining.


Reprinted from “Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and The Rise of Celebrity Politics” by David Haven Blake with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2016.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

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BuzzFeed Goes Back On $1.3 Million Ad Deal With GOP, Compares Trump To Cigarettes

BuzzFeed has sent a strong message by going back on its $1.3 million advertising deal with the Republican National Committee, citing the moral and ethical issues of promoting Donald Trump’s inflammatory agenda.

“We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company,” CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in an email to BuzzFeed staff, according to Politico. “However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.”

It’s a bold choice, albeit one that has consequences. Blocking a candidate on the basis of his views — rather than the veracity of his ads, as TV stations regularly do — sets a dangerous precedent for free speech in media advertising. But Trump is also a dangerous bigot, and the violence incited by his message suggests that it is necessary to limit the reach of his campaign.

The bigger problem is Peretti’s choice to make this stance so explicitly in the site’s advertising policy but not in its editorial content.

“We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers,” Peretti wrote in his email to the BuzzFeed staff, according to Politico. “And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.”

Understandably, there may be concerns about the appearance of a blurry news/business divide — which in many cases, often means corporate interests are dictating headlines. But after such a unique decision, BuzzFeed should worry about the opposite: loyalty to false “neutrality” that makes coverage too beneficial for Trump. 

If the news team is doing its job, the site shouldn’t need to make a clarification at all.

Good journalistic coverage of the presidential race must in fact scrutinize Trump. By restricting Trump’s ads, BuzzFeed is making an editorial statement on the business side of the media industry. Precisely because he is so inflammatory and intolerant, Buzzfeed should more explicitly take the same sort of strong stance in its reporting that it has taken in its advertising decisions.

The failure to do so is bad reporting. By putting reason over “balance,” BuzzFeed would aggressively and critically cover the lies and hatred spewed by the Trump campaign. Regardless of what Peretti may say, the decision to cancel the ad buy already says everything you need to know about BuzzFeed and where it stands on the political race.

Now that BuzzFeed has staked such a bold claim with its advertising, why is it holding back with a similar editorial statement?

That’s not to say that Buzzfeed hasn’t been providing critical coverage of Trump. With headlines like “18 Things Donald Trump Has 100% Actually Said” and, a few months earlier, “36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail with Donald Trump,” that’s clearly not the case.

Ultimately, however, attempts to limit Trump’s advertising power as well attempts to scrutinize his campaign in coverage of it come from the same place: an impulse to prevent his extremist, xenophobic, misogynistic ideas from reaching the mainstream more than they already have. 

BuzzFeed has clearly taken a stand on this issue in one side of its dealings — it might as well make that stand site-wide. 

Campaign Consultants And Media Companies Are Cashing In On Our Corrupt Elections

Four days before Ben Carson finally wrapped up his failed candidacy, his campaign paid $348,141 to a direct mail company. The same amount was paid at the start of the month to Pennsylvania-based Action Mailers, bringing the company’s February total close to $1 million.

That same day, a web service provider for Carson’s campaign (run by the candidate’s chief marketing officer) was paid $59,000. In February, as the campaign limped to an end, checks totaling $651,000 were sent to Eleventy for web services.

Carson, in an interview with CNN after he announced that he would be dropping out of the race, said “We had people who didn’t really seem to understand finances, or maybe they did—maybe they were doing it on purpose.”

In total, through the end of February, Carson’s campaign raised $63 million and spent $58 million, according to FEC filings.

Much of that money came from small individual donations, and much of it was spent on a handful of companies tasked with raising money from those individual donors. There are many links between companies paid money by his campaign and the individuals who surrounded Carson.

Eleventy, whose president, Ken Dawson, was the campaign’s marketing chief, received close to $6 million over the course of the campaign. Action Mailers received over $5 million. Carson spent just over $5 million on television buys, less even than Donald Trump, whose “free media” campaign has kept his ad expenses incredibly low. Just as important, Carson spent little on developing a ground game.

“There’s a lot of people who love me, they just won’t vote for me,” Carson said as he bowed out. Hundreds of thousands loved him enough to give money to what they thought was an actual campaign.

The rise of super PACs in the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has often dominated the discussion over money in politics in recent election cycles. There is much more to the tale. It’s not just about who is spending the cash, but where it’s going.

Harpers Magazine, in its April cover story, delves into the world of “strategists, pollsters, TV-ad makers, media buyers, direct-mail specialists, broadcasters, and other subcategories of what we should properly call the election-industrial complex.” Its conclusion leaves the reader feeling, if only for a moment, somewhat sorry for the billionaires and multi-millionaires pumping money into elections. It’s all wasted extremely efficiently, mostly on advertising buys.

Exhibit A: Jeb Bush, whose campaign and supportive PACs spent close to $150 million on his failed candidacy, with nothing to show for it but… well, actually, there’s just nothing to show for it.

The big winners are consultants and television companies.

Les Moonves, chairman of CBS, made it clear, twice, that what may be bad for America is very good for his company. “Super PACs may be bad for America,” Moonves said following the 2012 election, “but they’re very good for CBS.” That year, CBS made $180 million out of the election.

This election cycle, not only are broadcasters pulling in cash from advertising, they also have Donald Trump to thank for an unprecedented ratings spike.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves told a media conference in San Francisco in December. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” Moonves said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Photo: Supporters of Dr. Ben Carson congregate near Dr. Carson’s book tour bus after a book signing in Ames, Iowa.

How to Make Billboards Uglier

OK, people, we need to discuss billboards. Yes, we really must.

Billboards must be living creatures, for they appear to propagate, spreading everywhere, growing to enormous size, shouting corporate messages at us — and even watching and tracking us with their digital eyes.

Now, though, rather than billboards becoming human, we humans are becoming billboards. Literally. For the love of money, the National Basketball Association is transforming its chief human assets — i.e., basketball players — into advertising placards that run, dribble, leap, twist and dunk.

While individual golfers and racecar drivers have long splattered themselves with their sponsors’ logos, NBA teams are now planning to become the first major U.S. sports teams to sell ad space on their players’ game-day jerseys. Chintzy? Well, yes — but not cheap. Team owners expect brand-name corporations to pay at least $100 million to have their logos plastered on the chests of basketball stars.

Calling this a “stylistic move,” the mammon-worshipping owners say the ads will be modest — each just a two-and-a-half inch patch displaying the corporate brand of, say, Budweiser, Bank of America, Hooters or Viagra. The ad size seems small, but ESPN’s high-definition TV cameras will focus on them and show them to viewers hundreds of times in every game. And, of course, to squeeze ever-more cash out of each human billboard, both the owners and advertisers will steadily expand the commercial space to cover the entire uniform.

Actually, I’m not 100 percent opposed to ads on uniforms, for I’ve been saying since the first Clinton administration that presidents and Congress critters should have to put the corporate logos of their big funders on their suits, shirts, skirts, etc., so We The People can know at a glance whom they really represent. It’s my Truth-in-Politics proposal — and I hope you’ll push it, too.

But the bizarre world of billboards doesn’t stop with slapping the name of a corporate sponsor on an athlete. Just think about all the billboards you see as you drive to work, to school or to dinner with the family.

At best, these giant corporate placards are problematic: They garishly loom over us, clutter our landscapes and intrude into our communities with no respect for local aesthetics or preferences. Now, however, billboards are getting a high-tech reboot, allowing advertisers to invade not only our places but also our privacy. Having to see billboards everywhere is bad enough; far worse, though, is that the modernized, digitalized, computerized structures can see you! And track you.

Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, having already splattered the country with tens of thousands of billboards, has revealed that it is partnering with AT&T and other data snoops to erect “smart” billboards that will know and record when you drive or walk past one. Using small cameras and your own mobile phone, they can then follow your travel patterns and consumer behavior. Aggregating that information with other available data, Clear Channel can then know the average age and gender of passersby who see an ad on a particular billboard and know whether they later make purchases.

It’s “a bit creepy,” says Andy Stevens. And he works for Clear Channel! He’s the corporation’s vice president for “research and insights.” Stevens rationalizes the zippy new ever-watching Orwellian billboard as just another step into the digital future: “We’re just tapping into an existing data ecosystem,” he shrugs, noting that the millions of profiles collected by Clear Channel are “obviously … very valuable to an advertiser.”

And even more valuable to us persons who treasure our privacy and have given no permission to be targeted and tracked by a billboard huckster. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, agrees with Stevens in one aspect: “It is incredibly creepy.” Chester goes on to add, “It’s the most recent intrusion into our privacy.” And we thought government spying was out of control!

For information on corporate snooping, visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center site at

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at


Photo: Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) reacts during the second half of a game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports