How Political Attack Ads Work

mitt romney
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the Florida Republican primary in part due to a wave of attack ads against his rivals.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During the 2012 Republican primary, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich trounced his opponents in South Carolina on January 21, outpacing his closest rival and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points [source: The New York Times]. The political race then headed to Florida, which held its Republican primary 10 days after South Carolina, on January 31. With the competition escalating after Gingrich's runaway victory, that pivotal Sunshine State election came with a downpour of campaign advertisements -- and not the type to leave viewers feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Ninety-two percent of the 2012 Republican primary-related commercials were attack ads, promoting rivals' shortfalls rather than preferred candidates' achievements [source: Diane Rehm Show]. That type of negative advertising isn't anything new to election seasons, but the breakdown of who was paying for all of that televised mudslinging revealed a novel and startling wrinkle in the electoral process. Whereas special interest groups known as super PACs (political action committees) funded just 2.6 percent of political advertising on behalf of candidates during the 2008 Republican primary, a study conducted by Wesleyan University found that super PAC-sponsored attack ads shot up like fertilized weeds, comprising 43.6 percent of political commercials as of January 2012 -- a spending surge of more than 1,626 percent [source: Wesleyan Media Project]. In Florida alone, leading up to the state's Republican primary run-off, pro-Romney super PACs purchased 6,942 campaign ads worth $8.5 million, compared to just 196 spots bought up by pro-Gingrich super PACs [source: Semuels and Gold].


Although almost all of the ads were negative, with both the Romney and Gingrich camps skewering each other on the airwaves, the side with the louder and more persistent message dominated. In Florida, Romney cemented his position as the likely Republican candidate for president, winning the state by a healthy 12 percentage points.

Those election results point to the power of super PACs, which were empowered by the 2010 Supreme Court case "Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission" to spend unlimited amounts of donations to support political candidates. Before then, individual campaign donations were capped at $5,000. Following the Supreme Court decision, the sky's the limit, and as of February 2012, those moneyed groups had showered $56 million on the presidential election [source: Mayer]. Moreover, the fact that a major chunk of that cash directly flowed to political attack ads also points to a longstanding -- though reviled -- tradition of going negative in order to get candidates elected to office.


A Brief History of Political Advertising

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In 2003, political action group re-imagined the iconic 1964 "daisy ad" that helped win President Lyndon Johnson re-election.
Getty Images

The most famous political advertisement in American history aired only one time on television, but it's been viewed and referenced countless times, because it signaled such a radical shift in how candidates pitch themselves to the public [source: Geer]. Known simply as the "daisy ad," the minute-long slot was created by the advertising firm Doyle, Dane and Bernback on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, who was seeking re-election against Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. It begins with a little girl counting petals on a daisy, and the camera gradually zooms in toward her pupil, which reflects a mushroom-cloud explosion. Then briefly, an ominous message flashes on the screen urging viewers to vote for Johnson because "the stakes are too high for you to stay home," the advertisement's undertones implying that siding with Goldwater -- or allowing him to win by not voting at all -- would mean siding with nuclear war.

The daisy ad was so effective at jabbing Goldwater with indirect, yet threatening, rhetoric, that it has been cited as the first attack ad in U.S. politics [source: Cone]. Prior to that seminal production, political advertisements typically functioned as truncated stump speeches rather than creative, evocative ventures [source: Dwyer]. Not surprisingly, Goldwater responded with outrage, accusing the Johnson campaign of harping on people's fears of nuclear warfare, but it was too late. The age of the attack ad had come to stay.


When the daisy ad beamed out to an estimated 50 million viewers, television commercials for political candidates hadn't been around all that long. The first aired in 1950 on behalf of Connecticut Senator and former advertising executive William Benton, who broadcast his commercial on screens set up in public areas like shopping centers and street corners, since few Americans at the time had televisions at home [source: PBS]. The novel trick worked, and Benton narrowly won re-election. Two years later, the 1952 presidential race cemented political commercials as a cornerstone feature of election campaigns. A televised Dwight Eisenhower chatted with viewers during "Eisenhower Answers America" segments, and his vice presidential running mate Richard Nixon quelled allegations that he had accepted illegal corporate funds with his "Checkers" speech, in which he cleverly admitted that his camera-friendly dog Checkers was, indeed, a gift from one of his supporters [source: PBS].

Since the daisy ad days, political advertising has become more pervasive, as well as increasingly negative with every election cycle, it seems. Although the Internet and blogosphere have raised the stakes for credibility in political attack ads, since they now can be quickly fact-checked and debunked, it's nevertheless those below-the-belt ads that have turned voter tides. For instance, the 1988 presidential showdown between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis produced two notable attack ads that helped push Bush into the Oval Office. In one, the Bush campaign aired footage of an uncomfortable-looking Dukakis awkwardly sporting combat gear and driving a tank as an ironic backdrop to highlight his alleged ineptitude on national defense. The other, paid for by a pro-Bush interest group, stoked racist anxieties and portrayed Dukakis as soft on crime by flashing a mug shot of convicted Massachusetts felon Willie Horton who raped a woman while released from prison on furlough, which Dukakis had instituted during his tenure [source: PBS].

More recently, in the 2004 presidential race, an interest group representing Vietnam veterans broadcast attack ads claiming that Democratic candidate John Kerry had lied to obtain some of his medals while serving in the navy during the Vietnam War. Although the allegations were later proven false, the commercials nevertheless dented Kerry's reputation and electability [source: PBS Newshour].

For an idea of just how big of a business political advertising has become, in 2012, campaigns around the United States for president, governor and Congress are expected to spend a staggering $3 billion on television advertising alone [source: Dingfelder]. But those dollars don't just go to the moving pictures on screen. These specialized commercials spring from a sophisticated industry that targets messaging toward its audience with the precision of experienced hunters lining up prey in their crosshairs.


Political Attack Ads from Start to Finish

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Microtargeting allows political campaigns to tailor advertisements to people's individual lifestyles and preferences.
David Lienneman/Getty Images

One of the reasons television audiences are increasingly inundated with political advertisements as elections approach is that stations are required by law to cut campaigns and interest groups a good deal. Under Federal Communications Commission regulations, TV stations must sell political commercial slots at the "lowest unit charge" in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election [source: Berkovitz]. That legal measure is meant to level the political playing field and ensure that a station, sensing the high pre-election demand, can't artificially inflate its advertising prices to profit from the democratic process.

But long before those commercials ever air, political advertising organizations -- official campaigns, super PACs, political party headquarters, political marketing agencies -- are busily digging up dirt and painstakingly crafting the mud pies they'll throw from screens. When it comes to attack ads, the feet on the ground for gathering up unsavory information about a rival candidate belong to oppositional research teams. These are the people combing speech transcripts, sponsored legislation, published papers and essays -- anything with the rival candidate's name attached -- to unearth inconsistencies and offenses that might sully his or her public reputation.


Technology has not only accelerated the pace of oppositional research, but has also made it much harder for politicians to cover up any dirty tracks, thanks to online search engines [source: Schouten]. During campaign season, oppositional research operations may also deploy trackers to tail candidates around the country at stump speeches, pancake breakfasts and anywhere else that a regrettable sound bite might pop up. Armed with digital cameras and editing software, trackers can almost instantly publish damning video content online that can be tweeted out instantly, blogged, messaged out to media reporters and, of course, worked into a vicious attack ad. Then, having compiled enormous dossiers of negative information about a candidate, special interest groups and political campaigns can tailor the perfectly damning message to be televised to the appropriate audience.

Determining the optimal selling points and audience for a candidate to court involves many of the same processes involved in consumer marketing [source: Palmer]. Political advertising agencies may gauge what issues and platforms matter most to different demographic groups by employing polls, surveys and focus groups. For more real-time results, pollsters may screen political attack ads or debates while focus group participants continually track their reactions on perception analyzer devices. In this approach, viewers simply turn a dial on the handheld gadgets up or down to register their immediate positive or negative reactions, respectively, to what's happening on screen, which helps the marketers fine-tune what does and doesn't resonate [source: Foreman].

In the modern age of Facebook and social media, microtargeting also has become one of the go-to methods for syncing a message with the most agreeable audience. Microtargeting involves strategists collecting the data that people share online about their daily lives, such as brand preferences, jobs, leisure activities and, of course, political preferences, and using it to serve up more customized advertisements on Web sites for discrete clusters of potential voters [source: McCoy]. If, for instance, an online advertisement for a Democratic candidate pops up in someone's browser window, there's a good chance that microtargeting has something to do with it. The status updates and tweets and online purchases that person made tipped off a campaign that he or she would be interested in their message. And often, despite protestations from online privacy advocates that would suggest the opposite, the messages that are most likely to incite action on election day are those that skew negative.


Are negative ads effective?

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Although people claim to prefer positive campaign ads like Barack Obama's "Hope," negative ads are effective.
David Livingston/Getty Images

Ask voters whether they particularly enjoy negative political advertising, and the likely answer will be a resounding "no." As campaigns have turned more negative, the distaste appears to have grown as well. A 2000 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of American adults didn't approve of how politicians pitch themselves for office, often blaming the negativity inherent in those pitches for the thumbs down [source: Geer]. Four years later, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center got more specific and inquired whether attack ads irked participants, and 81 percent raised their hands in agreement; 61 percent of that group further reported that it annoyed them "very much" [source: Geer].

But whether folks like it or not, political attack ads work. Those ominous-sounding narrators of drama-laced attack ads repeatedly have been shown to jolt the electorate to action more effectively than positive ads touting a candidate's resume highlights. Evolutionary biologists consider that outcome a no-brainer, since early man's threat response became sharpened to keep him out of physical harm [source: Westen]. As a result, the brain pays more attention to dire warnings about allegedly no-good politicians running for office.


Likewise, a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Political Science revealed that viewers were more likely to research candidates, as well as specific social and political issues, in response to provocative attack ads as opposed to more cheerful ones [source: Dingfelder]. Analysis conducted at Wesleyan University has also suggested that younger, politically partisan men are most deeply affected by attack ads; ironically, people who don't have a problem with negative advertising are the least likely to be influenced by the dire marketing tactic [source: Drutman].

Political attack ads understandably have an unfavorable reputation, but there are certain upsides to the mudslinging, some experts point out. John Geer, author of "In Defense of Negativity," is a vocal proponent of going on the attack, maintaining that negative political commercials are often more substantive than positive ones, drawing viewers' attention to specific platforms and holding politicians accountable for their words and actions [source: Mark]. Others argue that attack ads leave such a sour taste in voters' mouths that they steer clear of the polls altogether; that possibility, however, hasn't swayed the opposition researchers and campaign strategists away from battering rival candidates on the small screen. Still, in order for them to win the fight, attack ads must retain credibility.

Riling up voters to favor a candidate can yield success, as long as commercials steer clear of outright fabrication. Just as political advertising experts acknowledge the power of going negative, that influence is crippled if the terrifying "facts" turn out to be half-truths and lies [source: Begala]. For that reason, it's important for voters to act much like savvy consumers, filtering the marketing messages tossed their way during campaign season in the same way they might with product commercials. Clearly, attack ads aren't resigning from office anytime soon, especially with the arrival of deep-pocketed super PACs. But just as, on the bright side, political attack ads can hold candidates accountable, the public also is empowered via blogging, social media and good old-fashioned word of mouth, to hold those scathing messages accountable right back. In other words, attack ads are only as effective as the public decides to make them.


Author's Note: How Political Attack Ads Work

Former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle once described attack ads as "the crack cocaine of politics." If you look at the overwhelming frequency of negative ads during campaign season, it does appear that the U.S. political system has developed an intense addiction to hitting rival candidates below the belt on the airwaves. This, despite public opinion polls that suggest time and time again that the electorate would rather say 'no' to attack ads. And before I dug into the research on whether political attack ads are effective, I assumed that they likely didn't deliver much of a punch at the polls. But it turns out that even though a majority of Americans would prefer to see a clean competition, it's the attack ads that energize the electorate the most.

Related Articles


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