Attack ads: a presidential history on TV

Oct 21, 2020, 3:16 PM
Biden Trump Split attack ads electoral college lead...
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Credit: Getty Images via CNN
  • Attack ads are nothing new; they’ve been around as long as the TV 
  • Candidates use attack ads because they work, as demonstrated by past research on campaigns 
  • Research shows even the suggestion that a negative ad is coming can influence a voter’s opinion

“Descent,” a campaign ad from Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, opens with the iconic footage of Donald and Melania Trump descending an escalator to launch his presidential bid in 2015.

“For the last five years,” the narrator says, “he’s brought America down with him.”

Television attack ads are as old as television itself, as evidenced by this one from the 1952 presidential campaign between Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played a key role in planning the Allied victory in World War II.

Seeds of doubt

University of Toronto professor Scott Hawkins “suggests that even a mention in the media that a candidate or party is planning to run negative advertisements can be beneficial, since it plants seeds of doubt in the voter’s mind, especially early in the campaign when voters tend to be less involved. If the reported claims turn up in advertisements later in the campaign, they already seem familiar to the voter,” according to a 2004 release from the Rotman School of Management.

An attack ad will generally unfairly criticize an opponent’s political platform by pointing out its faults. Often the ad will simply make use of innuendo, based on opposition research.


“Daisy,” one of the earliest and most famous TV attack ads, only aired once. President Lyndon Johnson used it against Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential election. The ad opens with a young girl innocently picking petals from a daisy while a man’s voice counts down to zero. Next, it zooms in to an extreme close-up to her eye but cuts to an image of a nuclear explosion. The ad was shocking and disturbing but also effective. It convinced many that Goldwater’s more aggressive approach to fighting the Cold War could result in a nuclear war.

Watch it here:


When attacks ads work

In order for attack ads to work, they must be credible or rooted in an element of truth.

The Social Security spot used against Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign documented his plan to change this highly popular program. The ad offered seven specific pieces of evidence documenting his support for altering Social Security. 

In 2004, the President George W. Bush campaign ran the surfer ad that showed in 30 seconds the opposing positions Democratic candidate John Kerry took on the same issue. It illustrated Kerry’s tendency to “flip flop” on the key issues.

Also, the 2004 presidential election featured attack ads against Bush’s military record but also attacks against John Kerry‘s Vietnam service record by some Navy Swift Boat veterans of the Vietnam War.

During the 1988 presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush used an attack ad against opponent Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, showing him riding in a tank wearing a wide grin and an oversized helmet, which the GOP used to try to insinuate that he was a fool.

Also used against Dukakis in the 1988 campaign was the Willie Horton attack ad, which is still a powerful reminder of how race can be manipulated in US elections.

When attack ads backfire

In the 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s campaign tried to paint Republican Ronald Reagan as someone unready to lead the United States.

Carter’s attack ads questioned whether Reagan had the judgment and insight to lead. But Reagan showed during the  the campaign that he was prepared to lead, which undermined Carter’s claim.

During a presidential debate in 1980, Reagan came across as informed and of sober judgment. Once again, for an attack ad to work, it must be based in truth.

Reagan was ready to be president and his eight years in office proved that point.

A more civil take

Recently, two candidates for Utah governor teamed up to show candidates can disagree without being disagreeable.

We can’t know yet how it will impact the race between Democrat Chris Peterson and Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; however, the ad campaign went viral nationwide for its emphasis on standing together. 

Thus far, the gubernatorial race in Utah has not featured attack ads, and many media critics have pointed to the Cox/Peterson debate as proof of what civil debates should be. 

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Attack ads: a presidential history on TV