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Power Games and the Age of Negative Advertising

April 27, 2012

Rereading Game Change I was hit with how many political adds have been ‘game changes for their candidates. Attack ads are at their best an art form and at their worst a campaign ender. They change campaign narratives and in the past some have seemed to turn the course of campaigns single-handedly.

Let’s look at some of the most effective.

1.“The Daisy,” Lyndon Johnson, 1964
Candidate: President Lyndon Johnson
Consultant/Creator: Tony Schwartz

As the most infamous political ad of all time, President Johnson’s ‘Daisy’ ad ran only once—but that was certainly enough. The spot features a little girl pulling petals off of a daisy, then cuts to a nuclear mushroom cloud. This was the first time ads were used to effectively use an opponent’s words against him. Previous campaign ads were cartoonish or featured the candidate talking about their polices.

Voters who saw the commercial or heard about it through later news criticism hardened their views of Goldwater and cast him in the role the Johnson campaign assigned, as reckless and belligerent. The threat of nuclear war had become a possible reality and Jonson won in a landslide.


2. Ronald Reagan, “The Bear,” 1984
Candidate: President Ronald Reagan
Consultant/Creator: Hal Riney

President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign ad is a commercial about fear, foreign affairs, and the Cold War. Unlike Johnson’s “Daisy Girl” message which was explicit and shocking “The Bear” who personifies Russia  is lying in wait and under Democrat Walter Mondale’s watch the ad implies will have an advantage.

This subtle message was so successful that it was reimagined in George Bush’s 2004 “Wolves” ad.

3. Tank Ride
Candidate: George H.W. Bush
Consultant/Creator: Roger Ailes

The image of then MA Governor Michael Dukakis riding on a tank with a gleeful grin on his face and wearing an army regulation helmet. At the time of it’s airing Dukakis was more than 20 points ahead of Bush in the polls. The narrative it began (as well as the continuation of Bush’s negative ad campaign efforts) proved to be the end of Dukakis.

4. “Swift Boat, ” Veterans For Truth (series)
Candidate: No official endorsement
Consultant/Creator: “SBVT”

The “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” (SBVT) series was formed during the 2004 presidential election campaign expressly to oppose John Kerry’s bid running 4 attack ads during the race.  The ads criticized Senator Kerry distorted facts about his war record, comments he made while testifying before a congressional subcommittee upon returning from his tour, and his media of honor.

Later when actual reporting was done it was discovered that the group included only one member who has actually served alongside Kerry. Senator John McCain, condemned the series as “dishonest and dishonorable”, but by then it was much to late to redeem his character.

5. “3a.m. phone call”
Candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Consultant/Creator: Roy Spence

In the words of President Johnson (which have been stated in over and over since 1964) that on Election Day “The stakes are too high to stay home.” That sentiment was the lifeblood for Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad. It implied that Obama lacked the strength, experience, and wisdom to handle an international crisis.

Although this ad didn’t bring Clinton the nomination it did help re-establish her candidacy and prepared the future President for a harder general.


What are your ‘favorite’ ads?

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