We’re in an election year, and you know what that means: it’s time for the inevitable blitzkrieg of political advertisements to assault your television screens. To be even more specific, we can all expect the usual slinging of mud between the two parties using the most loathed weapon in the propagandist’s armory: attack advertisements. Practically no one likes attack ads, what with them seeming more like an excuse to bash the opponent of a candidate rather than tout the upsides of the candidate themselves. And yet they still have a massive presence in seemingly every election. Why is that?
Well, the truth about televised attack ads is that they are actually a comparatively recent development in United States politics. Some of the earliest examples in this country only date back to 1952, and even those ads held little weight in the overall campaign. Attacks ads didn’t really rise to any level of prominence until the 1960s, when one ad in particular stood out as one of the most inflammatory (and infamous) in American history. In fact, you might already be familiar with it, even if you don’t know the context: the “Daisy Girl” ad.
Created in 1964 to support Lyndon Johnson against his opponent Barry Goldwater, the ad depicts a young girl picking flower petals as a distant voice begins counting down. When the countdown hits zero, the camera zooms into the girl’s eye and cuts to a nuclear explosion. Goldwater’s name was never even uttered once, yet the implication was clear: Goldwater’s more aggressive approach to handling the Cold War could escalate into nuclear conflict. And “Daisy Girl” conveyed this message compellingly using shocking imagery and disturbing concepts, which were largely unexplored methods of persuasion in presidential camapigns up to that point. Even though the ad only ran once, it immediately left an impression on the American people and almost certainly helped Johnson secure his victory over Goldwater in the election.
The most successful and memorable attack ads in the subsequent decades would follow the example set by “Daisy Girl” to a tee. George H.W. Bush, for instance, struck gold with two commercials in the 1988 election aimed squarely at his Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis. One of them, “Tank Ride”, outright ridiculed Dukakis with a less-than-flattering image of him riding in a tank, weakening his image as a strong, capable leader. More successful still was the “Willie Horton” spot, which described the case of a black man who was convicted of murder and released ten separate times on Governor Dukakis’ prison furlough program, killing and raping a young couple during one of them. By playing on people’s fear of crime (and their slightly less pronounced fears of race), Bush crippled Dukakis’ chances of appearing sympathetic and capable in the public eye.
Of course, not everyone has the chops to pull off an effective attack ad. Ronald Reagan had the pleasure of combating opponents in the campaigns for each of his two terms who tried and failed at strong ad hominem strikes. In 1980, Jimmy Carter desperately tried to establish Reagan as someone who was under-prepared for the presidency but only found himself grasping at straws. In 1984, Walter Mondale attempted to recapture the spirit of “Daisy Girl” but flopped on the execution, especially since Reagan had not yet demonstrated any willingness to engage in nuclear combat. Such failures exhibited that unjustified attack ads – ad hominem for the sake of ad hominem, rather than touching on any existing facts or issues – are a waste of time and money.
In fact, in spite of their reputation, the most effective attack ads are more than mindless negativity and baseless accusations. The best ones have a ring of truth to them, and in fact one of their more commonly argued benefits is their ability to contribute to political citizen education. For a comparatively recent example of this, take a look at 2004’s “Windsurfing” ad that ran under the George W. Bush campaign, illustrating the point that Bush’s opponent John Kerry was a flip-flopper by comparing and contrasting his stances on various bills in Congress. Contrast that with John McCain’s less successful “Celebrity” spot in 2008, which compared Barack Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and it’s easy to see which attack ads strike with precision and which ones backfire.
But above all else, attack ads are works of pathos, an appeal to our emotions. Successful ones, like “Daisy Girl” and “Willie Horton”, implant feelings of doubt and fear which are carried with us into the voting booth, whether we like it or not. The negative is more easily remembered than the positive; it is a principle of human psychology that overrides the public’s general distaste for such ads, supported by several studies and polls, which politicians and their campaign advisors recognize. Such is the brilliance of attack ads, and why they continue to be a staple of modern campaign propaganda; you don’t have to “like” them for them to work. Hell, you don’t even have to like the candidate they support (which makes them one of the few ways to accrue votes from any demographics that are usually at odds with that of the candidate). They are, in short, the “commercial jingles” of political advertisement. Regardless of their quality, their honesty or their level of controversy (though all of those certainly help), if you just can’t get them out of your head after seeing them, then they have done their job.