Originally Published: 3 June, 2012.
They say that when you resort to negative campaign techniques you’re in trouble. Every candidate wants to be the bastion of ‘Hope and Change’, yes, that’s nothing new, Mr. Obama. However, the simple truth is, negative ads work. Just ask John Kerry. The ‘Swift Boat’ ad cost him the election and forever changed public opinion about him.
Arguably the most significant and successful ad in Election Campaign history was a negative ad; LBJ’s Daisy Ad from 1964. It is also the most negative ad in Campaign History. It states the world would be closer to nuclear apocalypse if Barry Goldwater was President. Negative ads are most successful when they reinforce the views voters already have of candidates. Many people considered Barry Goldwater to be radical and unstable. LBJ’s campaign tapped into this feeling in the best possible way. The last person you would want as President in the event of a nuclear war would be someone who was radical and unstable.
Now all this seems like pretty blatant campaign rhetoric however what makes the ‘Daisy Ad’ so successful is that it feels authentic. Nuclear apocalypse seemed a very real possibility in the early 60s. The little girl in the video seems real, not an actress. This is poignantly achieved by having her miscount the daisy’s petals.
Another successful negative ad was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s ad against John Kerry in 2004. Senator John Kerry is a Vietnam War veteran turned anti-war activist. The ad accused him of aiding the enemy through his anti-war activism. George W. Bush famously served in the National Guard yet John Kerry who had actually served in Vietnam was portrayed as being anti-military. This technique is straight out of the Karl Rove Playbook; you accuse your opponent of possessing your own biggest weakness. Bush had an unimpressive military background so a Bush-supporting Super PAC attacks Kerry, a War Hero, as being unpatriotic.
Not all negative ads are successful. Mondale’s 1984 ‘Orbiting’ ad warning Americans about ‘Space Wars’ which could occur under Ronald Reagan did little to stoke the fears of Americans as people saw Reagan as a strong leader. It also made Mondale look weak on Defence.
One of the worst ads ever is George McGovern’s 1972 ‘Voting Booth’ ad. The ad has a Democratic-leaning voter in a voting booth uncertain of how to vote!! Yes, uncertain how to vote?!?! Yes, this is an ad produced by McGovern’s Campaign! The ad is basically a voter umming and arring over who to vote for. Uncertainty is one thing that should NOT be in a campaign ad. It’s not hard to see why McGovern lost as badly as he did (he won only Massachusetts and Washington, DC) if this was his campaign’s idea of an ad. The voter manages to eventually convince himself to vote for McGovern as this is the ‘hand that voted for Kennedy’. Linking McGovern to Kennedy is probably the only good thing about the ad.
Another terrible negative ad is Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968. Humphrey’s was running against Nixon, aka Tricky Dick, Nixon’s obvious untrustworthiness and slipperiness was screaming out to be exploited. Since 1952, Nixon’s honesty and integrity had been questioned, see Checkers speech. Nixon looked untrustworthy, shifty and like a used-car salesman in the TV Debates which helped Kennedy win the election.
So did the Democrat choose to exploit Nixon’s shifty nature in 1968? Hell No. Instead they chose to focus on Nixon’s Vice President nominee, Spiro Agnew. Agnew by all accounts was no statesman and seen as a joke. But the Democrat’s negative ad against Agnew just seemed mean-spirited. All the ad is is Agnew laughing in an annoying way, with the caption, ‘Agnew for Vice-President?’ This would be funny if it weren’t so serious…’
Campaigns need to tread upon a fine line when creating negative ads. They have immense power to shape public opinion. They are most powerful when they tap into voters’ preconceived ideas about the opposition. Used in the wrong way they can make your campaign look desperate and childish, not qualities you want a presidential candidate to be associated with.