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Political Attacks Ads of the Past and of Today

Since the introduction of television sets in dens and living rooms, televised ads have been an effective means to appeal to the masses and extend the influence of candidates. It has become a vehicle by which to sway the hoi polloi of Middle America and those potential voters that know relatively little of the candidates or tend to oscillate from a left leaning to a republican one. One journalist in 1988 spoke of the value of ads as “doing its job for those who have not made up their minds. For all the others they will do nothing.” In fact, that seems to be the case with the method of creating these ads. As most advertisements for manufactured goods tend to sell the product by focusing in on the unique and matchless quality of the product, often by spotlighting the product itself, political ads by their very nature are likely to sell their product, by anti-advertising. If these individuals are apt to vote, or are recurrent voters, the most straightforward way to advertise is to paint the other individual in off tones and in a negative light so that the other candidate is left with no off-putting associations. In comparison, many companies on the other hand, sell items that may be luxuries or products not of necessity, and resultantly it becomes pointless to anti-advertise since it would likely affect the sales of that entire market.

In 1964 the campaign of Lyndon B. Johnson ran an ad that depicted a small girl innocently counting petals on a flower only to be superimposed by a nuclear blast. This ad, dubbed Daisy, gave no direct reference to Johnson’s republican counterpart, Barry Goldwater, but alluded to Goldwater’s stringent political stance on foreign policy. The voice that narrated did so with the drawl of a Southerner, a brogue similar to Goldwater’s which reinforced the underlying association to the conservative senator. Similarly, Senator John McCain’s ad, Celeb which aired shortly after Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, attempts to hijack Obama’s image by associating certain images and sounds with negative overtones to the junior Senator. With respect to the content of Senator John McCain’s ad, the focus is on Barack Obama’s growing celebrity-like status. It takes images of the world’s most recognizable faces, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, along with sound of thousands chanting “Obama,” and derides Obama as “the world’s biggest celebrity.” The associations have the implication of scornfully putting down Obama as nothing more than a political personality and pop icon. What is more, by comparing Obama to Hilton and Spears, who have long been seen as unintelligent by pop culture, if not, carelessly irresponsible, it draws on a well-spelt out conclusion, one that takes a stab at Obama’s own ability, youthfulness, prudence and appeal. (explain, example)

Former President Bush’s Tank ad, which depicted presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in an oversized helmet smiling as faulty facts on Dukakis’ record on military defense scroll down the screen and are then emphasized by a deceiving voice (add details), did unerringly what it hoped to achieve by taking advantage of Dukakis’ comical appearance and combining it with unsmiling allegations. The result was disastrous for Dukakis. McCain’s ad parallels its predecessor in the same manner by using a seemingly mischievous voice coupled with the standard screen shots of Obama walking, smiling, and waving to crowds of thousands. These traditional shots

The advertisement does offer accusations that suggest that in the midst of a global oil crisis and ever-rising costs for fuel, Obama would urge against offshore drilling and raise taxes on energy as president, thereby exacerbating the situation.

The Daisy ad had been paid to be aired only once, yet received more than its fair share of publicity. Its success established a guiding principle in campaign tactics for advertising, creating an unwritten tenet that stated that part of developing a successful attack ad is creating one that will do exactly this: generate publicity for the ad itself and cause controversy, which was the ultimate upshot of the Daisy advertisement. Fast-forwarding to 2008, Celeb is, by a long way, the most distinguishable of Senator John McCain’s cache of ads. When it first aired, it received global attention on all media outlets from tabloids that have glued Hilton’s face to its cover for years to conservative networks that explored the propriety of the ad itself. This now infamous advertisement made headlines for days after its inception. During an interview in 1984 Steve McMahon, a political ad consultant, commented on the utility of negativity in ads, declaring “people say they don’t like negative campaigning but in the end its negative campaigning and negative campaign commercials that people remember” a comment that underscored this important role of attack ads as a main feature in campaigns due to its blazing effect. McCain’s Celeb falls in line with this notion and has produced the same prevailing, widespread effect that Daisy had created.

When political campaigns solicit to a broad range of independent voters in candidate centered ads, it can be hard to appeal to everyone if specific issues are presented and many of these issues work against the other. The more issues that are presented, the greater the possibility in alienating voters becomes. An example would be advertising Obama’s support for ending Iraq in the same commercial where he supports government subsidized healthcare. One may win the support of a viewer, but if that viewer disagrees with state-sponsored healthcare, that person may be disinclined to vote in Obama’s favor. Thus, it becomes the norm to produce attack ads rather than positive, issue-based ads about the respective candidates when a positive ad can have the latent effect of working against the candidate.


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