The mid-term elections are over here in the United States. And with their end there will be no more political ads for a while. This year it seems as if nearly every single candidate used negative political ads against his or her opponent. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if candidates were more eager to tell one what his or her opponent stood for rather than what he or she stood for himself. Regardless, while negative political ads seem to be much more common these days, they are nothing new.
Indeed, the most notorious political ad of all time is nearly as old as I am. What became known as the "Daisy Girl" commercial aired all the way back in 1964, during NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. The commercial began with a little girl picking petals off a daisy, and counting them off as she does so. The camera then zooms in on her face as an offscreen voice begins a countdown. At the end of the countdown it zooms into one of her eyes, in which we see the reflection of a nuclear explosion. An offscreen announcer then utters these words, "These are the stakes, to have a world in which all of God's children can live or go into the darkness. We must either love each other or die. Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." While he was never mentioned in the commercial, the message was clear. President Lyndon Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, would get us into a nuclear war.
The "Daisy Girl" commercial was part of a lareger campaign by Johnson and his camp to portray Goldwater as a warmonger who would be reckless in the use of nuclear weapons. And while there were other similar ads which aired, the "Daisy Girl" commercial would air only once. It caused such controversy that it was removed from the airwaves immediately. Having seen the commercial several times, I can understand why. Even today, with both Johnson and Goldwater dead, it still has the power to frighten those of us who remember the Cold War. At any rate, Johnson's campaign to paint Goldwater as a reckless warmonger apparently worked. Goldwater lost the election by a large margin.
Of course, not every negative political ad is as intense or as blatant as the "Daisy Girl" commercial. Another commercial that was fairly negative and perhaps fairly effective as well ran in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. Nixon had chosen controversial Governor of Maryland Spiro Agnew as his running mate. In response, the Democrats ran an ad which featured a TV set with the words, "Agnew for Vice President?" The soundtrack featured a man laughing hysterically. The Democrats apparently thought the idea of Agnew running for Vice President was a joke and thought the voters would agree. As it turned out, many voters apparently didn't. Nixon won, even with Agnew as his running mate.
Another notorious negative political ad aired in 1988, when Republican George Bush, then Vice President, ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts. The ad focused on Massachusetts prison inmate "Willie Horton," who escaped from prison and killed two people--according to the commercial because of Dukakis's policy of letting prisoners go on weekend furloughs. The ad was attacked almost immediately. For one thing, it implied that if elected Dukakis would let prisoners out of jail. For another, it was blatantly manipulative. Indeed, Horton never even went by "Willie," preferring his given name "William."
Over the years it seems as if negative political ads have become more and more common, to the point where they outnumber any other sort of political ad. In fact, I rather suspect that Missouri Senatorial candidates Claire Mccaskill and Jim Talent told us more about each other's records than they did themselves. Are such ads effective? For me that is hard to tell. On the one hand, most people complain about such ads and often state they would rather hear what the candidates themselves stand for than hear the candidates attack each other. On the other hand, it often seems that when a candidate decides to run an overly negative campaign, that candidate wins (Johnson in 1964, Bush in 1988). Regardless, I can guarantee that two years from now, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, we will probably see many more negative ads.