ELECTIONS

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.

Doom

“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. 

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

Elections

donald trump...
Kate Sullivan, Gabby Orr and Kristen Holmes, CNN

Trump says he’s ‘more angry’ and ‘more committed’ to White House bid as he breaks his campaign trail hiatus

Former President Donald Trump said he's "more committed" to winning back the White House as he hit the campaign trail after announcing a third presidential bid.
6 days ago
Sen. Karen Mayne...
Devin Oldroyd

Utah Dems to hold special election filling the seat of Sen. Karen Mayne

Utah Democratic will hold a virtual special election at 6 p.m. on Jan. 15, to fill the seat of Sen. Karen Mayne as she steps down due to health issues.
22 days ago
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 05: U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) cheers in the House...
Clare Foran, Manu Raju, Annie Grayer, Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox, CNN

House to hold 12th vote in longest speaker contest in 164 years

Originally Published: 06 JAN 23 05:07 ET Updated: 06 JAN 23 12:57 ET By Clare Foran, Manu Raju, Annie Grayer, Melanie Zanona and Lauren Fox, CNN     (CNN) — Kevin McCarthy is locked in a fight for his political future as the California Republican attempts to win the votes he needs to become speaker of the […]
29 days ago
Utah Congressman Blake Moore feels everyone has a different dog in the fight. Meaning, some politic...
Elizabeth Weiler

Voting for house speaker, Utah representative weighs in

Utah Congressman Blake Moore feels everyone has a different dog in the fight. Meaning, some politicians won't change their minds about McCarthy for personal reasons.
29 days ago
John Curtis...
Mark Jones

Rep. Curtis says Rep. McCarthy has experience to lead as House Speaker

Utah Rep. John Curtis says Rep. Kevin McCarthy has the experience to be House Speaker. This comes after McCarthy has failed to be elected after six rounds of voting.
1 month ago
Arizona judge orders Republican Kari Lake, pictured here, in Phoenix on December 18 to pay fees for...
Stephanie Becker, CNN

Arizona judge orders Kari Lake to compensate Katie Hobbs for some fees for election lawsuit, but declines to sanction her

An Arizona judge ordered Republican Kari Lake to reimburse Democratic Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs for legal fees stemming from Lake's challenge of the outcome in the state's race for governor.
1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Attack ads: a presidential history on TV