RSS
Briefing: Going negative
How long have attack ads been around? They
 

Hillary Clinton’s ‘3 a.m.’ commercial suggesting that Barack Obama is not ready for the presidency is just the latest in a long line of political attack ads. Do they work?

How long have attack ads been around?
They’re as old as the republic, though they used to come in a different form. In the 18th and 19th centuries, political parties didn’t buy advertising per se, because they didn’t have to; they owned the newspapers. The parties had their own house organs that didn’t even pretend to be objective and that dug up or invented dirt about the other side. The parties also circulated pamphlets attacking opponents with impunity. During his 1828 campaign for president, Andrew Jackson had to contend with press attacks accusing him of murder and cannibalism. In 1860, Democratic newspapers and pamphlets portrayed Abraham Lincoln as “stupid” and “an ape.” As newspapers evolved into more dispassionate chroniclers, the tone of campaigns improved. But with the advent of television in the mid-20th century, negative commercials became an important part of political discourse.

How quickly did that happen?
Immediately. The first presidential campaign of the TV age was the 1952 race between Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson. And that year, the first televised attack ads appeared, though they were mild by today’s standards. One Democratic spot featured an animation of a portly, two-headed Republican. The message was that Eisenhower and other GOP politicians said one thing to the public and another to Republican fat cats. The next few elections also featured negative commercials, but experts say the “art form” truly came into its own in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson unleashed the infamous “Daisy” spot against Barry Goldwater. Many experts still cite that ad as the most powerful attack commercial of all time.

What was so special about it?
Political strategists say the most effective negative ads exploit existing voter doubts about a candidate. Goldwater was viewed by many as an archconservative who might be too quick to go to war. The Daisy ad opened with a child plucking petals from a flower; then it cut, shockingly, to a nuclear fireball. Although the commercial never even mentioned Goldwater, its message was clear: He could not be trusted with America’s nuclear arsenal. The ad touched off such an outcry that it aired only once, though it was played repeatedly on the news. The commercial, said Republican Rep. John Rhodes, “was deliberately and viciously designed to scare the nation.” It worked, and so have many others since then. Attack ads may have gotten more subtle, but their purpose has never changed: to place opponents on the defensive and in the worst possible light.

How is that accomplished?
It’s often a matter of playing to fears or prejudice. The 1988 Willie Horton ad is another notorious classic of the genre. The commercial compared George H.W. Bush’s positions on crime with those of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. For Dukakis, the camera lingered over a menacing mug shot of Horton, described as a convicted murderer released by Dukakis through a weekend furlough program. Shortly after his release, the commercial said, Horton raped a Maryland housewife and stabbed her husband. “It didn’t say a black man raped a white woman,
but that was the message you got,” said Republican consultant Scott
Reed. Horton’s image, said the ad’s producer, Larry McCarthy, was
“every suburban housewife’s greatest fear.” But it was so effective, he said, only because it was technically accurate.

Are many attack ads factual?

Surprisingly, they often are more accurate than the gauzier “image ads” touting a candidate’s record or life story. Vanderbilt University’s John Geer analyzed nearly every presidential campaign commercial since 1960 and found that negative ads are often the most accurate and even the most substantive kind. Not only are negative ads more likely to address the issues, Geer found, they’re also more likely to include supporting sources to back up their claims. Geer found that 72 percent of the claims in negative ads referenced specific policy issues, compared to 49 percent for image ads. Attack ads that turn out to be false are deemed to be cheap shots, which helps explain why candidates seem to take special care to make sure they will hold up.

How does the public feel about attack ads?
They tell pollsters they hate them, but that’s only part of the story. Studies have found that negative ads are more memorable than positive ads, and most political consultants swear by them. And though voters also tell pollsters that they do not believe they are influenced by negative ads, studies have shown that negative ads are particularly effective in sowing doubt among voters who are not already committed to a candidate. At the same time, they can help fire up the attacking candidate’s core supporters, driving them to the polls. That’s why if the past is any guide, at least one-third of the estimated $1 billion that will be spent on advertising in the 2008 presidential race will be of the negative variety. “Enthusiasm in politics,” said political analyst Michael Barone, “usually contains a large element of hatred.”


Sunk by the Swift boats
Because inaccurate attack ads can backfire on the candidate who makes them, some of the most vicious ads in recent years have been sponsored by independent groups. And perhaps none were more effective than the 2004 “Swift boat” ads. During the race between President Bush and John Kerry, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed a series of commercials questioning Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. One claimed that Kerry had largely fabricated reports of the incident for which he received the Bronze Star. Several of Kerry’s shipmates backed Kerry’s version of events, Kerry’s accusers had no documentary support for their claims, and President Bush disavowed the ads. Still, polls showed they caused a sharp drop in Kerry’s standing, particularly among independents and veterans. Kerry later acknowledged that he compounded the problem by being slow to respond. Meanwhile, a new phrase had been added to the political lexicon. Politicians who feel they have been unfairly attacked now say they have been “Swift boated.”

Correction
The March 21 Briefing (“The gang war that’s ravaging Mexico”) incorrectly stated that Congress had approved a $1.4 billion aid package to Mexico and disbursed some of the funds. Congress is still debating the aid package, and no money from it has been distributed.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week