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In political campaigns, an attack ad is an advertisement whose message is designed to wage a personal attack against an opposing candidate or political party in order to gain support for the attacking candidate and attract voters. Attack ads often form part of negative campaigning or smear campaigns, and in large or well-financed campaigns, may be disseminated via mass media.
Televised attack ads rose to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, especially since Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations require over-the-air commercial TV stations with licenses issued by the FCC—effectively all regulated TV stations, since others would either be public television or be pirated—to air political ads by both parties, whether it be attack ads or more traditional political ads. Although cable television and the internet are not required to air such ads, attack ads have become commonplace on both mediums as well.
The use of attack ads has gradually spread to other democratic countries as well, most notably Canada.
One of the earliest and most famous television attack ads, known as "Daisy Girl", was used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. The ad opened with a young girl innocently picking petals from a daisy, while a man's voice performed a countdown to zero. It then zoomed in to an extreme close up to her eye, and 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 again by the campaign of George H.W. Bush against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. The two most famous were the "Willie Horton" and "Tank Ride" ads. The "Willie Horton" ad began with a statement of Vice President Bush's support of the death penalty. Then it described the case of Willie Horton, who was convicted of murder. The ad state that Governor Dukakis's prison furlough program (unsupervised weekend passes from Massachusetts prison) released Horton ten times; in one of those furloughs, he kidnapped a young couple, stabbed the boy and repeatedly raped the girl. The ad ended with, "Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime."
The "Tank Ride" ad from 1988 was an attack on Dukakis by the GOP. Though the ad was inaccurate, it created a lasting negative impression and helped guarantee Dukakis's defeat. The ad suggested that Bush was more supportive of military spending and weapons programs than Dukakis. The footage, pulled from the news media, showed Dukakis riding a tank in his attempt to counter the claim that he was weak on defense. He wore a large, oversized helmet and a wide smile, which was used by the GOP to insinuate that he was a fool. The GOP also added gear sounds from an 18-wheeler truck to imply that Dukakis could not run the tank smoothly – although tanks do not have gears that grind.
The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries featured an ad by Hillary Clinton directed at her main rival at the time, Barack Obama, which aired days before the Texas primary. The ad began by showing children asleep in bed while phone rang in the background. A voice-over stated that it was 3 a.m., the phone was ringing in the White House, and that "something’s happening in the world". The voice-over then asked voters if they wanted someone who "already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military" and is "tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world" to pick up the phone. While Obama was never mentioned by name, the implication was clear and the ad set off a firestorm of discussion and controversy, causing even Obama himself to respond and describe it as an ad that "play[ed] on people’s fears", predicting it would not work. Later in the campaign, after Obama had become the Democratic nominee, Republican nominee John McCain echoed a similar sentiment. In a controversial ad called "Celebrity", McCain's campaign asked, "[Barack Obama] is the biggest celebrity in the world. But, is he ready to lead?" The ad juxtaposed Obama supporters with photos of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
By 2010, attack ads had spread online as political candidates publish their ads on YouTube. Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate from California, released a video on YouTube depicting former Republican opponent Tom Campbell, as a "Fiscal conservative in name only”.
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The first attack ads of the 2006 Mexican general election were launched by the conservative National Action Party against Andrés Manuel López Obrador; the ad claimed that López Obrador's "populistic" proposals would drive Mexico further into economic crisis and bankruptcy. The Party of the Democratic Revolution answered with attack ads against the current president Felipe Calderón, claiming that he was partly culpable for the 1994 economic crisis; since Calderón was running with a motto of "the president of employment", the ads closed with, "dirty hands, zero employments". After López Obrador alleged that Calderón was illegally patronizing his brother-in-law Hildebrando Zavala, the tagline was changed to "dirty hands, one employment for his brother-in-law".
While attack ads have primarily been relegated for political usage, there have been some instances of private businesses running them. In 2013, Highmark, a healthcare company associated with the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) were unable to reach an agreement on whether Highmark's insurance would be accepted at UPMC. Highmark also entered into negotiations to acquire the struggling West Penn Allegheny Health System; Highmark and UPMC then started airing attack ads at each other. Both parties' ads accused the other of pushing patients with their respective health insurance plans to hospitals operated by their respective health insurance provider, as well as attacking each other's nonprofit status.
Studies claim that 82% of Americans dislike attack ads, and 53% believe that the "ethics and values" of election campaigns have worsened since 1985. The voting public see attack ads as an element of smear campaigning. Other research indicates that voters are open to candidates attacking each other if the issues in question are "appropriate". In a 1999 survey of Virginia voters, 80.7% felt it is fair for a candidate to criticize an opponent for "talking one way and voting another", though but only 7.7% feel it is fair for a candidate to attack an opponent for the "behavior of his/her family members".
Political operatives, however, have found attack ads to be useful, and social psychologists claim that negative information has a tendency "to be more influential than equally extreme or equally likely positive information." 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."
In the United States, researchers have consistently found that negative advertising has positive effects. 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;" it makes the election seem more important, and thus increases voter turnout. Other research has found that negative advertisements only appeal to partisan voters, and that it alienates independents, causing elections to be fought among partisan extremes.
If an ad is seen as going too far or being "too personal", voters may turn against the party that put the ad out. For example, in the Canada 1993 federal election, the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party attacked Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien by implicitly mocking his Bell's Palsy partial facial paralysis. Outrage followed, and the PC Party's image was badly damaged in the polls. Similar backlash happened to the Liberal Party of Canada in the 2006 federal election, when they created an attack ad suggesting that Conservative leader Stephen Harper would use armed Canadian soldiers to police major cities. Though the ads were never aired, they diminished the believability of other ads by the Liberal Party. A leaked copy, broadcast on the news, offended many Canadians, particularly the military, some of who were fighting in Afghanistan at the time.
In the run up to and the 2015 Canadian federal election itself, Justin Trudeau, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and the son of famous Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, was subjected to a sustained negative ad campaign by the Conservative Party of Canada. However, the "Just Not Ready" campaign was judged by the public as unfair and mocking of the Liberal leader. More importantly, the advertising campaign lowered public expectations of Trudeau's performance that even Conservative personnel noted that he would impress people if he showed any display of competence in public events such as the televised debates. That proved to be the case, and Trudeau took advantage of the public's low expectations to impress the public with his articulate and passionate manner to garner support throughout the campaign until his party won a majority government.
In 2006 Republican challenger Paul R. Nelson campaigned against Democrat Ron Kind for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Nelson's ad stated, "Ron Kind has no trouble spending your money, he’d just rather spend it on sex," and, "Instead of spending money on cancer research, Ron Kind voted to spend your money to study the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes." Nelson’s challenge fell short, as Ron Kind was reelected, while the attack's outrageous presentation provoked an uproar from Republicans and Democrats alike. A 1999 survey showed that challengers lose almost 3 points on the feeling thermometer (a 100-point scale used to assess survey-takers feelings on certain issues) when a candidate engages in mudslinging. The study also shows that the influence of negativity is less powerful for challengers than for incumbents.[clarification needed]
Campaigns often establish or support front groups (organizations that appear to be independent voluntary associations or charity) to run counter-attack ads. This technique ties into the wider practice of astroturfing. Former political speechwriter Leonard Steinhorn points out that "issue ads" run by front groups use deceptive names to hide their true sponsors – such as the pharmaceutical industry–backed United Seniors Association, which spent $17 million on ads during the 2000 US presidential election. As front ads are not controlled by the candidates they support, the candidates are insulated from criticism.
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