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Sixty four years since the first televised debate, appearance still matters

TV studio camera
By Tom Carnegie
04 July 2024
Financial Communications

For many watching last week's debate between Biden vs Trump it was a shock to see the current President stumble at multiple hurdles. In addition to consistently mixing his words and bumbling, he also completely missed the mark in visual appearance. As media outlets were quick to point out, his black suit looked like he was dressed for a funeral rather than a debate, while he appeared ill (his advisers would later state he had a cold) with a ghost-white complexion.

Trump on the other hand looked more reserved, his orange face seemed a slighter tone than usual, his navy suit fitted the part, and he appeared significantly more youthful than Biden, despite the age gap only being three years.

With a large team of media advisors, it is difficult to understand how Biden got this so wrong. The importance of appearance is a lesson that emerged in the first televised debate 64 years ago, yet somehow slipped through the cracks for Biden and his team.

It was on an Autumn night in 1960 when Americans sat down in their living rooms to watch the first-ever televised US presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. What unfolded would swing the election in Kennedy’s favour and change the course of American history. The debate cemented the importance of visual appearance for future generations of politicians and leaders.

Prior to the debate, Nixon had been leading in the polls. When he appeared on television he began sweating under the lights, his light-grey suit faded with the backdrop and he had also declined to wear make-up, making him appear washed out and unwell on the black and white screens. He looked so bad his mother called him immediately following the debate and asked if he was sick. While the Chicago Mayor at the time stated in an interview “they’ve embalmed him before he even died.”

Interestingly, those who listened to the debate over the radio, rather than watching it on TV, for the most part, noted they thought Nixon won, reinforcing how much sway appearance has on perception. 

It was a harsh lesson for Nixon, who ended up narrowly losing the election, and set an example for politicians and leaders to avoid replicating ever since. Following his death in 1994, Mark Frankel, the then executive editor of the New York Times penned “Nixon lost a TV debate, and the Presidency, to John F. Kennedy in 1960 because of a sweaty upper lip.”

Only time will tell if Biden’s stumbling performance loses him the election. For others, it’s an important reminder that when it comes to broadcast and visual media, appearance matters, just as it did 64 years ago.