The McCann Time Capsule: Leveraging Celebrity Politics in the 1956 Presidential Campaign

The McCann Time Capsule: Leveraging Celebrity Politics in the 1956 Presidential Campaign

After some 17 years of planning, the Washington D.C. memorial to honor President Dwight D. Eisenhower inched ahead last week when the former president’s family removed their objections to the memorial’s design. But 60 years ago this month, McCann led a national effort to celebrate the 34th U.S. President that moved along at a much, much faster clip.

In 1956, the Republican National Committee came up with “Ike Day” as a major promotional and broadcast birthday celebration as part of Eisenhower’s presidential re-election campaign. It would culminate in a TV and radio program that would run nationwide on Oct. 13, 1956, the day before the president’s 66th birthday.  While other Madison Avenue shops were working on other aspects of the former WWII Supreme Allied Commander’s re-election campaign, McCann was chosen for the Ike Day assignment, according to the newly published book, “Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics.” On Sept. 14th, only one month before the huge event itself, our agency team, led by our CEO Marion Harper, met with the Eisenhower campaign team to plan all aspects of the promotion, from the P-O-P materials to the half-hour birthday program featuring celebrities regaling the president that would be broadcast prime time across the nation on 189 TV and 360 radio stations.   

“While McCann-Erickson knew how to emphasize a product’s superior effectiveness, they used celebrities to move the president away from partisan politics and toward the broader appeal of spectacle and consumption,” writes David Haven Blake, the book’s author. McCann presented him in his “paternal role,” surrounded by his children and grandchildren, making him “seem approachable, down-to-earth, the patriarch of the American family. It is telling that in preparing the birthday tribute, McCann-Erickson asked him to behave like most Americans did: by sitting in front of the television and watching the stars entertain.”

McCann was on its way to becoming a major GOP agency, which would include developing advertising for the 1966 gubernatorial campaigns both of Nelson Rockefeller in New York and Ronald Reagan in California.  But as an interesting bipartisan footnote, the ad agency chosen in 1956 by the campaign of Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s Democratic presidential opponent, was Norman, Craig and Kummel, whose principal Gene Kummel would join McCann a decade later and rise to become worldwide chairman & CEO in the 1970s.

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