"Arkansas’s Cartoon Campaign Advertisements, 1942-1970." By Janine A. Parry and Dusty Higgins.
In postwar Arkansas, hundreds of original, bitingly satirical political messages appeared as cartoon ads in the state’s newspapers during election season. Peaking in the 1960s, it has been decades since Arkansans have seen cartoon-style advertisements but they used to be as familiar as today’s television spots.
These unique examples of paid campaign communication reveal much about the state’s politics at mid-century. Frequently, they struck a populist note, alerting voters to the risk of being manipulated, “sold down the river,” or otherwise exploited by powerful interests. Arkansas also had a reputation for local political potentates, fluid factions, and election irregularities. Accordingly, the cartoons teemed with old-school wire-pullers like Conway County’s Marlin Hawkins. Nearly always, the cartoons exhorted newspaper subscribers around the state to vote for (or against) candidate or issue X as the only way to avoid being bamboozled by the “Old Guard,” “Wall Street Boys,” labor bosses, or “cut-throat employers.”
Although the ads were not signed, the available record suggests most can be attributed to the two best-known Arkansas editorial cartoonists of the twentieth century, Jon Kennedy and George Fisher. Kennedy drew for the Arkansas Democrat for almost fifty years before retiring in 1988. Fisher started a commercial art service in
1954, but later became the regular editorial cartoonist for the Gazette. From the 1940s through the 1960s, both artists moonlighted for parties and candidates using the same single-panel cartoon medium they used at the newspapers for which they worked, a practice anathema to later journalists’ professional ethics. It was sticky enough then that Kennedy said he tried to mask his work by changing his lettering technique. Still, “during all my years at the Democrat,” he said, “I wore two hats: one as editorial cartoonist, and one as a commercial artist. I always tried never to let my commercial or political work influence my editorial cartoons. . . . Actually I never got any complaints from the Democrat, or anybody else.” Fisher’s happy account of his time at the Gazette suggests this was also the case for him.
Arkansas’s experience with cartoon campaign ads probably was unusually rich. Although there is evidence that this form of campaign communication was used in national and state campaigns elsewhere—including sequential art treatments on behalf of presidential candidates Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman—it seems likely it remained common practice decades longer in Arkansas than elsewhere. Low population density and fragmented media markets hampered the rise of television as the dominant form of political communication, prolonging the use of more traditional campaign tactics. In the following slides, we examine 23 representative samples of this lost practice.