5 Most Effective Campaign Ads


"Willie Horton" (1988)

President-elect George H.W. Bush celebrates his victory in November 1988.
President-elect George H.W. Bush celebrates his victory in November 1988.
Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Roger Ailes is best known as the president of the Fox News channel, but the conservative media mogul made a name for himself in the '60s, '70s and '80s as a savvy media consultant for Republican presidential candidates. In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush was taking on a relative newcomer in Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Ailes' strategy for Bush was to paint Dukakis as a "tax-raising liberal" who was soft on crime [source: Schwartz]. Through focus group testing, Ailes figured out that voters were particularly appalled by a prison furlough program in Massachusetts that allows convicted criminals -- even violent ones -- to get free weekend passes.

Enter Willie Horton. On the night of April 3, 1987, William R. Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison, was released on a weekend furlough. Horton broke into the suburban home of Angela and Clifford Barnes, stabbed and bound Mr. Barnes and raped his wife [source: Toner]. Ailes and Bush decided to focus on the "Willie" Horton case in speeches, repeatedly citing the tragedy as an example of Dukakis' weak stance on violent crime.

But it was an independent political action committee, not Ailes, which would create the most infamous ad of the 1988 campaign. The spot, which was broadcast only once, was designed to contrast the hard line stance of Bush (yes to capital punishment) with Dukakis and his furlough program. Over a menacing mug shot of Horton, the announcer details the heinous attack on the Barnes family and finishes with the line, "Weekend prison passes; Dukakis on crime."

The controversial ad was never supported or repudiated by the Bush campaign, which created its own furlough ad featuring a revolving prison door, but never mentioning Horton by name. In the election, Bush won 40 states with nearly 54 percent of the vote.