JFK’s Great Public Performance

Today, President Joe Biden takes office as America’s 46th president. Many before him made their mark through policy and leadership, but also through great public speaking performances.

Audience Influence: Performance Versus Content

The most famous case study of television rhetoric is 1960’s Presidential Debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. America was left with the overwhelming impression that “winner” was determined by the medium you tuned in through. Nixon won on radio, but JFK swept on TV. Their debate informed television studies for decades. But why did JFK’s on-camera performance win him the election?

Play to the Camera to Win

Kennedy’s openness to the vanity of television played a major role. His dark blue suit choice created a flattering contrast. His tanned face (enhanced by makeup) gave him an attractive glow on Americans’ living room screens. And his relaxed behavior had been coached by film director Arthur Penn, so Kennedy appeared personable and confident.

But if you listened to the speech on the radio, many agreed that Nixon’s answers were superior to those from Kennedy. You wouldn’t have seen Nixon’s sweaty, pale face. Or his constant weight shifting—which was actually due to a knee injury—that gave the impression of nervousness.

Video Changed Marketing Forever

The Kennedy-Nixon debates proved that a powerful on-camera appearance can eclipse the impact of spoken word. Television appearances have since developed into an art form, from Lee Iacocca’s Chrysler commercials of the 1980’s to Steve Jobs’ Apple presentations of the 2000s. The next televised presidential debate wasn’t until 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But debates have provided American viewers entertainment during every presidential election cycle since.

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