Attack ad

Attack ad

In political campaigns, an attack ad is an advertisement whose message is meant as an attack against another candidate or political party. Attack ads often form part of negative campaigning or smear campaigns, and in large or well-financed campaigns, may be disseminated via mass media.

An attack ad will generally criticize an opponent's political platform, usually by pointing out its faults and contrasting them against its own platform. Statements in the ad may or may not be true. The ad does not have to be false to be an attack. Often the ad will simply make use of innuendo, based on opposition research. Televised attack ads rose to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, and their use has gradually spread to other democratic countries since then, notably in Canada (see below).


One of the earliest and most famous television attack ads, known as Daisy Girl, was used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. The ad opened with a young girl innocently picking petals from a daisy, while a man's voice (which may have had somewhat of a 'southwestern' accent similar to Goldwater's) performed a countdown to zero. It then zoomed in to an extreme close up to her eye, then cut to an image of a nuclear explosion. The ad was shocking and disturbing, but also very effective. It convinced many that Goldwater's more aggressive approach to fighting the Cold War could result in a nuclear conflict.

Attack ads were used with great success by the campaign of George H.W. Bush against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The two most famous were the "Willie Horton" ad and an ad which ridiculed Dukakis with visuals of him looking foolish while riding in a tank. The Willie Horton Ad was especially notable for how controversial it was. The ad begins with a simple statement of Vice President Bush's support of the death penalty. Then it starts describing the case of Willie Horton who was a black man that was convicted of murder. The ad continues to explain that Dukakis's prison furlough program (unsupervised weekend passes from prison) released Horton 10 times and on one of those furloughs, he kidnapped a young couple, stabbed the boy and "repeatedly" raped the girl. Then the ad ends with this line "Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime."

In 2007, the UK's first American-style attack adverts were launched by political TV station 18 Doughty Street. The first advert attacked the UK government on tax, the second attacked all three parties on state funding of political parties while the third ad was an attack against the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone.

The 2006 Mexican elections, likewise, were plagued with attack ads. The first of them were ads against Andrés Manuel López Obrador by the conservative PAN, claiming his "populistic" proposals would drive Mexico to bankruptcy and crisis; the effect was notorious in a country that already endured almost 15 years of continuous economical crisis. On the other hand, the PRD answered back with a round of attack ads against the current president Felipe Calderón, claiming that he was also indirectly guilty for causing the 1995 crisis; since Calderón was huging himself as "the president of employment", the ads closed with the tagline "dirty hands, zero employments". After López Obrador alleged that Felipe Calderón was illegally patronizing his brother-in-law Hildebrando Zavala, the tagline was changed to "dirty hands, one employment for his brother-in-law". Attack ads don't have to be purely for campaign purposes: there was also an party ad by the PAN, aired shortly before abortion was declared legal in the capital, in which a woman was sentenced to forceful abortion, in a scenario reminiscent of nowadays China.


Some believe that attack ads are useful in shaping public opinion. This may be the result of the appeal to emotion which attack ads often represent. However, an attack ad may fail in its intended purpose and backfire against the group which used it. If an ad is seen as going too far or being too personal the voters may turn against the party that put out the ad. One example of an attack ad backfiring was during the 1993 federal election in Canada when the Progressive Conservative Party attacked Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien by appearing to many to implicitly mock his Bell's Palsy partial facial paralysis. Outrage followed, and the PC Party was hurt badly in the polls. Similar backlash happened to the Liberal Party of Canada in the 2006 federal election for creating an attack ad that suggested that Conservative leader Stephen Harper would use armed Canadian soldiers to police major cities. The ad was never aired. Its effect was to diminish the believability of the Party's other attack ads. A leaked copy that was broadcast on the news offended many Canadians particularly the military, some of who were fighting in Afghanistan at the time. (See also 2006 Harper attack ads.)

Campaigns often establish or support front groups to run attack ads to deflect the criticism that comes from running them.

In the United States, researchers have consistently found that negative advertising has positive effects. According to Finkel and Greer (1998), negative advertising “is likely to stimulate voters by increasing the degree to which they care about the election’s outcome or by increasing ties to their party’s nominee.” This is an important feature of negative campaign advertising because it can solidify a candidate's support going into an election. The finding was repeated by Ken Goldstein and Paul Freedman (2002), who found that negative campaign ads raise interest in the election as well as raise the perceived importance of the election, which increases voter turnout. Negative advertising, then, can be very beneficial to a candidate during a campaign to not only win votes but also get out the vote.

Negative advertising can also be used to demobilize voters. Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar (1995) found that negative campaign advertising appeals only to partisans. They go on to say that negative advertising actually alienates independents and demobilizes them as voters, which causes elections to be fought among the partisan extremes. This makes sense since it removes the independents as a voting bloc to be concerned about and allows the candidates to stick to the party line.

ee also

*Ad hominem


* Finkel, S.; Geer, J. (1998) A Spot Check: Casting Doubt on the Demobilizing Effect of Attack Advertising. "American Journal of Political Science, 42"(2), 573-595.
* Freedman, P.; Goldstein, K. (2002) Campaign Advertising and Voter Turnout: New Evidence for a Stimulation Effect. "The Journal of Politics, 64"(3), 721-740.
* Ansolabehere, S.; Iyengar, S. (1995) "Going negative: How attack ads shrink and polarize the electorate". New York: Free Press.

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