Clinton: "I will not raise taxes on the middle class."
Announcer: "We heard that a lot. Six months later he gave us the largest tax increase in history. . . ."
Announcer: "The same old politics--Dole attacks Clinton. Hold it. . . . Dole voted to raise payroll taxes, social security taxes. . . $900 billion in higher taxes.
Dole: "You're going to see the real Bob Dole from now on."
Announcer: "The real Bob Dole, 35 years of higher taxes."
Both ads are examples of negative political advertising, which attempts to persuade citizens to vote for one candidate by attacking the opponent's character or views. All this happens with a minimum of words in about 30 seconds. Of course, negative political campaigning in the United States is as old as the country itself. The election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for example, was one of the most negative in our history. Although the candidates themselves remained above the fray, their supporters spewed venom. Adams was denounced as a traitor to the American Revolution who wanted to install himself as king. Jefferson was attacked as an anti-Christian, adulterer, and dangerous radical whose election would lead to a reign of terror.
Today's attack ads on television may seem mild in comparison. But they have added a new dimension to the election process. Some worry that the increasingly negative 30-second political TV "spots" provide the only information that many people use in deciding how to vote--or even whether to vote at all.
From Ike to "Willie" Horton
The first political advertisements for a television audience appeared in 1952 as part of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Republican presidential campaign against Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower (often called "Ike") filmed 40 TV spots in a New York City studio during a single day. For each ad, he simply faced the camera and read from scripted cue cards. Tourists visiting New York were then recruited to be filmed asking Ike questions. The questions and Ike's answers were edited together along with an announcer's voice over. Eisenhower won by a landslide. He probably would have beaten Stevenson even without the TV spots. But after 1952, American political campaigning would never be the same.
In the 1956 election rematch between Eisenhower and Stevenson, TV campaigning took a negative turn when the Democrats used the first TV attack ads against Ike's running mate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Playing on voters' fears about the health of Eisenhower, who had recently suffered a heart attack, the Democrats produced a TV spot in which an announcer asked, "Nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?" From this time on, both major political parties have increasingly resorted to negative TV spots to attack each other.
The most famous TV attack ad took place during the 1964 contest between the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, and Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater had the habit of making provocative "shoot-from-the-hip" remarks like the one in which he said that the United States could lob nuclear missiles into the men's room of the communist leaders in Moscow. Building on Goldwater's well-known hawkish views, Democratic campaign strategists developed a devastating attack ad, which did not even name the Republican candidate.
The TV spot began with the camera on a little girl alone in a field counting, "One, two, three. . . ," as she picks petals off a daisy. The little girl looks up startled as the camera moves to her face and eye until the screen goes black. A man's voice is then heard counting, "Ten, nine, eight. . .," until a nuclear bomb is shown exploding. As the bomb blossoms into its mushroom shape, President Johnson speaks: "These are the stakes--to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."
The obvious implication was that if Goldwater were to become president, he would start a nuclear war. Known as "Daisy," this spot was aired one time by the Democratic Party (although it appeared a number of other times on news programs). Outraged, the Republicans threatened to sue for libel.
By all accounts, the nastiest TV political ad campaign in recent times occurred during the 1988 presidential race between Vice President George Bush and Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts. Early in the campaign, Bush trailed Dukakis in the polls. Republican strategists decided to attack Dukakis on emotional issues such as crime. A pro-Bush political action committee financed the most effective attack ad, which centered on the story of one criminal.
William Horton, an African-American, had been sentenced to prison in Massachusetts for killing a person during a robbery. Under a state furlough program, Horton was allowed to spend 48 hours outside of prison. Horton violated the conditions of his furlough, raped a white woman, and assaulted her boyfriend.
The TV ad developed by the political action committee contrasted the positions on the death penalty held by Bush (for) and Dukakis (against). The ad further charged that, "Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison." A black-and-white mug shot of "Willie" Horton then appeared on the TV screen. After relating Horton's crimes against his two white victims, the spot ended by showing an unflattering photo of Dukakis with the caption, "Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime."
Nothing was really untruthful about this TV spot, but a great deal was left unsaid. The Massachusetts prison furlough program had been created by the previous Republican governor, not Dukakis. Also, most other states as well as the federal government operated successful furlough programs. Finally, many accused the ad-makers of intentionally selecting a black criminal for the spot to stir up racial fears and prejudice among white voters.
Attack Ads and Democracy
The majority of TV spots shown during presidential election campaigns still tend to be positive, showing what a candidate stands for and why people should vote for him. But campaign media specialists like to "go negative." Negative ads stick in people's memories. They take advantage of the tendency of people nowadays to vote against rather than for someone. Most importantly, these ads seem to work.
What effect do attack ads have on democracy? The most recent academic study on this question revealed that negative political advertising reinforces the view that the political system is corrupt and all politicians are crooks. The study also showed that up to 5 percent of the voters are so turned off by negative ads that they decide not to vote. These tend to be mostly moderate and independent voters. Thus, attack ads may be driving many moderate voters away from the polls.
Should anything be done about attack ads? First of all, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects all political speech. So attack ads cannot be outlawed. Further, many argue that they are part of the rough-and-tumble democratic process. They may even have value if they are truthful and point out flaws in candidates or their positions.
Since 1990, some newspapers and TV stations have started analyzing the truthfulness of campaign spots. In their political coverage, they have included an "Ad Watch" feature, which analyzes the factual content of TV campaign spots and reports any that are inaccurate or misleading. According to a number of campaign media consultants, the Ad Watch effort forced them to be more careful about their TV spot attacks. Ad Watch does seem to have the potential for reducing inaccuracy, deception, and negativity in political advertising.
More importantly, citizens must learn to view 30-second TV spots more critically to see if they contain useful information. And citizens must depend on more than these spots to judge the candidates.
For Discussion and Writing
- What is a negative political ad?
- Are TV attack ads bad for democracy? Why or why not?
- Some people argue that attack ads would tend to disappear if candidates were required to appear in their ads themselves, speaking on their own behalf like Eisenhower did in 1952. Others say that this would mainly hurt challengers who need more aggressive ads in order to unseat incumbents. What do you think?
For Further Information
Political Ad Critic: A site containing video clips of advertising spots employed by candidates in several elections.
A C T I V I T Y
In this activity, students examine ads for federal, state, and local candidates.
A. Students should view the ads for two opposing candidates in at least one federal, state, and local election. Ads can be found at Political Ad Critic. After viewing each spot, the students should meet in small groups and answer the evaluation questions listed below. The class as a whole should then discuss the answers to each question.
TV Spot Evaluation Questions
- For which candidate was the spot produced?
- Name any specific campaign issues mentioned in the spot.
- Does the spot appeal to voter feelings like patriotism, optimism, sympathy, trust, distrust, selfishness, fear, anger, or prejudice? How?
- Explain any political slogans that appear in the spot.
- Identify and explain the meaning of any symbols (like the American flag) that appear in the spot.
- Describe any noticeable or unusual use of photography, music, graphics, or special effects in the spot.
- Is this a positive or negative spot? How do you know?
- What is the main message that the spot is trying to get across to the voters?
- Does the spot provide useful information to the voter? Explain.
- Are you convinced by this? Why or why not?
B. After the class has evaluated real political TV spots, the students should meet in small "media consulting" groups. Each group will write a 30-second script for political candidate. Each group will then role-play its spot before the class.
C. After performing their role plays, the students should discuss these questions:
- Which spot was the most memorable?
- Which spot contained the most useful information?
- Which spot was the most convincing?