Negative presidential campaign ads: the best and worst

Negative presidential campaign ads: the best and worst

Washington : DC : USA | Jun 14, 2012 at 10:13 AM PDT
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Attacks ads are as old as television and this presidential election is projected to be one of the most brutal. The reason they continue is because they have proven to be effective, whether you approve of them or not.

Presidential campaigning using negative ads on television is in full swing. The Romney camp is attempting to capitalize on President Obama’s statement on the private-sector economy in a recent news conference. "Doing Fine?" is the title of Romney's TV attack ad.

Mixing images of long unemployment lines and foreclosed homes with text of startling statistics about the current economy, the ad asks, "How can President Obama fix our economy if he doesn't understand its broken?"

The Romney campaign, its surrogates, and Republicans immediately pounced on the president's statement last Friday, and have used the past week to paint Obama as out of touch with average Americans. This ad appears to be the culmination of that effort.

The new ad will go up in seven battleground states critical to Romney's path to victory in November: Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, according to Fox News.

Romney has had success with negative advertising in the past. During the primaries, a barrage of ads attacking Newt Gingrich catapulted Romney to victory in Florida after losing South Carolina to the former House Speaker.

When did attack ads start?

Attack advertising became popular with political cartooning in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Luther realized that getting his message to the middle class was tantamount to success, which ironically is the same in method in 2012, except we are not using woodcuts. A merchant class had emerged to occupy positions of leadership within the growing villages and towns, which meant that a core of people existed, who would respond to Luther's invectives and be economically capable of resisting the all-powerful Catholic Church.

In regards to the physical requirements of graphic art, both woodcutting and metal engraving had become established trades, with many artists and draughts men sympathetic to the cause. Finally, the factor which probably influenced the rise of cartoons more than any other cultural condition was a high illiteracy rate. Luther recognized that the support of an increasingly more powerful middle class was crucial to the success of his reforms, which has proven to be the same down through the centuries with attack ads progressing with the development of technology.

The earliest known television attack ad was in 1952. The theme of a 1952 Democratic attack ad was that the Republicans engaged in doublespeak—that they would say one thing to one group and another to another group. This is an enduring theme in campaigns: that the opposition cannot be trusted to do what they say.

One of the best remembered attack ads

In 1964 Lyndon Johnson’s "Daisy" spot characterized nuclear war. This ad was only aired once but is still talked about today. It used the innocence of a little girl to raise the horrors of nuclear war. The creator of the ad, Tony Schwartz, argues that the ad is not at all negative, that it was a positive issue ad, discussing the most pressing matter of the day—nuclear war. He does have a point: Goldwater’s name is never mentioned in the ad. But even so, it was Goldwater’s past statements about the tactical use of nuclear weapons that made the ad come to life.

View the daisy spot on youtube.

Another ad that is still discussed today is the infamous Willie Horton ad that used the issue of crime as a way to play a "race card" against Michael Dukakis in 1988. It is doubtful this ad recast the election, since Vice President Bush was in the lead in the polls at the time. Even so, it remains a powerful reminder about how race can be used in American elections.

Most informative attack ads (if they can be trusted to be truthful—which is always in question)

John Geer, in his defense of negative ads, believes they can be more informative than positive . He argues there are a lot of choices and this is one of them. Judge for yourself. The wind surfer ad from 2004 used against Kerry, as is the Social Security spot used against Goldwater in 1964 that documented his plan to change this highly popular program. In the 1964 spot, the ad offers seven specific pieces of evidence documenting Goldwater’s support for altering Social Security. It was a devastating attack. Forty years later, the Bush campaign ran an ad that showed in 30 seconds the opposite positions John Kerry took on the same issue.

In another example Geer talks about is an attack ad by Carter against Reagan. Carter aired ads that tried to paint Reagan as someone who was not prepared to be president. The ads questioned whether Reagan had the judgment and insight to lead the nation. Yet Reagan showed during the course of the 1980 campaign that he was prepared to lead. Perhaps the best example of this came during the presidential debate of 1980 where Reagan came across as informed and sober in his judgment. For an attack ad to work, it must raise a credible issue. Geer does not discuss the manipulation of the Iranian hostage crisis that prevented Carter from obtaining release of the hostages, maneuvers allegedly orchestrated by Republican operatives in cooperation with the Iranian rebels , which was ultimately the core reason why Carter lost the election. The debates would have paled in the wake of the hostage release.

When attack ads distort

One of the best examples of ads that distort is the Dukakis tank ride from 1988. The GOP used Dukakis’ own footage against him. The ad laid out the fact that Bush as a hawk was more supportive of military spending and weapons programs than Dukakis, using video in which Dukakis in a tank. The ad was a counter attack of a Dukakis aired ad criticizing Bush for airing this ad and “distorting” his record. If you listen closely to this ad you will hear the sound of grinding gears, suggesting that Dukakis cannot even run the tank smoothly. That sound was added to the footage; tanks do not have gears that grind. The gear sounds were of an 18-wheeler, hence the use of distortion to manipulate public perception.

This is similar to the Howard Dean-aired campaign speech in 2004 when the sound and recording was distorted to present him as yelling and angry, which was as it turns out untrue. Still, the event was played over many times to the public and become impossible to discredit.

Attack ads are not going away, and the best way to decipher them is to arm yourself with information about your candidate and their opponents. People in the 21st Century are not illilterate like the middle class in Luther's time, but they can become accustomed to letting the television do their thinking. Take the time to read about the issues you care about that will impact your livelihood and your family. Get information from as many sources as possible, not just television or radio, and read as many interpretations of the political policies you care about the most.

If you like writing about U.S. politics and the 2012 campaign, enter "The American Pundit" competition. Allvoices is awarding four $250 prizes each month between now and November. These monthly winners earn eligibility for the $5,000 grand prize, to be awarded after the November election.


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daisy ad
The 1964 Daisy ad against nuclear war by the Johnson campaign is still considered to be one of the most effective campaign ads.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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