The History Of Negative Political Ads


Negative political ads overtake the airwaves whenever a big election is coming up. While most viewers report negative feelings towards these ads, their survival indicates that something about them is working. While cable TV and the internet have made the attack ad nearly ubiquitous, the history of negative campaigning in US elections stretches back far before today’s technology existed.

An effective negative political ad undermines a candidate several different ways. Ads may use shocking imagery and disturbing ideas to stir up fear of a candidate’s policies. On the flip side, ads may also make a candidate look ridiculous or unable to effectively lead.

Negative political campaigning first came to the US airways in the 1960’s. Because the FCC requires all commercial channels to broadcast political advertisements from both parties, television became the largest arena where candidates fought for votes. One of the first (and certainly most well remembered) attack ads came from this era.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson launched the now famous “Daisy Girl” attack ad against his opponent Barry Goldwater. This ad showed a young girl picking daisies while a distant voice counted down from ten. As the countdown sounded, the ad zoomed to a close-up of the girl’s eye then cut to an image of a nuclear explosion. This shocking image played on viewer’s fears – if Goldwater was elected, nuclear war may follow.

Fear was a tool used in the 1988 presidential elections as well. George H.W. Bush struck out at his opponent Michael Dukakis with an ad revolving around convicted murderer Willie Horton. Horton was allowed “weekend passes” from prison by Dukakis’s furlough program. During one of these furloughs Horton abducted a couple, stabbing the male and raping the female. The ad juxtaposed Bush’s positive stance on the death penalty against Dukakis’s seemingly lenient furlough program, presenting Bush as the only safe choice.

Political ads need not rely on fear to get a message across. Painting an opponent as incapable of taking the lead is equally as effective. George H.W. Bush used this tactic in another famous attack ad: “Tank Ride”. This ad uses unflattering footage of Dukakis riding in a tank during an exhibition. Dukakis is smiling as someone else drives the tank. As this image plays, a voiceover describes the military spending decisions Dukakis voted against. The message in this ad was clear – Dukakis was in no way a strong military leader.

The 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry gave voters another example of the effectiveness of an unflattering image. The Bush campaign created an ad with footage of Kerry windsurfing juxtaposed with a description of the decisions Kerry had changed his mind about. This strengthened Bush’s critique of Kerry as a “flip-flopper” that changed his mind as the wind changed.

Political ads continue to use the tools of fear and ridicule to help sway public opinion. In 2008, John McCain tried to paint Barack Obama as a celebrity rather than a leader by showing his image next to images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. In 2012, Barack Obama took advantage of Mitt Romney’s comments about cutting funding to Public Broadcasting by implying Romney would not address the real problems the country was facing.

Negative political ads may be distasteful to many, but they can also be effective. By presenting voters with images designed to create an emotional reaction, candidates can draw people out and engage them in the election. Ineffective mudslinging can cause public opinion to turn against a candidate, but when used correctly negativity can draw people to the polls. While it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of political ads specifically, it is easy to see that they are a tool that will be used by politicians as long as there are people to hear.

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This article was contributed by AdSemble, a provider of digital signage services.

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