FDU alum details 1972 election campaign advertising

As a speaker in the popular Politics on the PublicMind series, College at Florham alumnus and Nixon re-election campaign advisor Michael Lesser detailed his personal experience and fascination with politics. (Photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

“Less than 12 years after graduating, I found myself in the Roosevelt Room with ‘all the president’s men,’” says Fairleigh Dickinson University alum Michael Lesser of working on President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Speaking at this semester’s first Politics on the PublicMind event, Lesser recounted his road to Nixon.

The marketing major became a part of the November Group, the committee to re-elect the president, after two critical experiences: one at FDU and one at Vicks Chemical Company, now owned by Procter & Gamble.

Away at college, Lesser found himself actively interested and involved in politics for the first time during his freshman year, as John F. Kennedy ran for president. “Jack Kennedy was the first rock star politician,” he says.

As a student at the College at Florham, Lesser formed a liberal political club. He and a conservative classmate used to engage in on-campus debates. “Until I got to FDU in 1960, I’m not sure I ever knew a Republican,” he says.

However, by the time he graduated in 1964, Lesser would describe himself as a conservative.

With tenacity, Lesser pursued a position at Vicks. A few years into working there, a mentor and colleague asked Lesser to take on a special project, reviewing products that the company had decided against working on. It might have been a boring exercise, save for the fact that the fifth or sixth box he dug through was labeled “NyQuil.” After taking a second look at the discarded files, Lesser created a new business plan for the product. The company put it back in testing. Today, NyQuil is the number one cold medicine in the world, he says.

From there, Lesser experienced a “fairly rapid rise, to where, at 29 years old, I could be recruited.” And he was, after an acquaintance at the Peace Corps recommended Lesser’s marketing and advertising talents to those forming the November Group.

“I was fascinated then, and now, by the process,” he says of politics and campaigns.

A close-up of speaker and FDU alum Michael Lesser.

The strategy was simple: remind the country of Nixon’s successes including reducing the number of troops in Vietnam, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and opening relations with China.

“We didn’t ever show Nixon running for president,” Lesser says of the print and television advertising the campaign ran. “He was too busy being the president to ask for votes.” The campaign slogan Lesser wrote proclaimed, “Nixon Now, More Than Ever.”

Humanizing Nixon, however, was a challenge, according to Lesser. Television spots featured long shots of the president, a voiceover describing his achievements and a loop of “Hail to the Chief,” in attempts to avoid emphasizing Nixon’s subpar people skills.

Looking back, Lesser sees “strange contradictions” in the 37th president. “He was probably the most thoughtful president and he saw the world that was developing. His policies are still in effect today.” Still, he was a “horrible manipulator and not a very nice man.”

Despite his passion for politics, Lesser never served as a marketing and advertising advisor on another campaign, opting instead to return to the corporate life. Currently, he serves as the CEO of Revive Personal Products. His prior positions include CEO at Lowe Marschalk Advertising Agency and president of Ogilvy and Mather Advertising Agency.

These days, he still keeps a close eye on politics, with a keen interest in what happens behind the scenes.

“Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics are retail.’ The parts you don’t see are way more important than what we talk about,” Lesser says.

Politics on the PublicMind continues with Lesser on October 9, with a discussion on “60 Years of Presidential Campaign Advertising: And what it says about us.” He will conclude his lectures on October 23, with “Obama vs. Romney on TV: Who’s winning the advertising war.”

These events will be held from 3:30-5 p.m. in Lenfell Hall. Starting November 1, the series moves to the newly renovated Orangerie and runs from 2-3:30 p.m. Upcoming speakers include Robert Edward “Midget” Molley, an advocate for abused inmates; Debbie Denno, Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law; Saad Soliman, founder and CEO of Soliman Consulting, Inc. and The Honorable Charles Hynes.

To reserve a seat, call Colleen Di Gregorio at 973-443 8530 or email colleend@fdu.edu. The sessions are free to students, faculty, staff and alumni.

FDU’s PublicMind™ is a survey research group that examines politics, society, popular culture, consumer and economic trends.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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