People say they hate negative political ads. They’re a total turn-off. And even if you try changing the channel you’ll only find more. It’s an inescapable fact of life in modern politics, an advertising practice that persists for one simple reason: it works.
“Many people think that positive campaign ads can advance the dialogue once more,” says Campbell Mithun vice president John Rash, “Problem is, the negative ones continue to work.”
Political analyst Steve Smith tells KARE-TV negative campaign ads are essential for candidates who still lag in the polls after airing a series of positive ads.
“The candidate who’s falling behind in the polls has to go negative at some point. The positive stuff doesn’t seem to be working,” remarked Smith.
He added, “Now what all of us hope is that you do it in a fair way, but what’s important to the candidates of course is they do it in an effective way.”
Rash says negative ads work take issues that have already been raised in one way or another and put them into easy to understand message.
“Negative ads have often personified or portrayed a concern about a candidate and been able to solidify a victory for an opponent.”
Daisy Girl and Mushroom Clouds
The classic example is the “Daisy Ad” the Johnson campaign ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964, capitalizing on the perception that the Arizona senator was too willing to use nuclear weapons in global conflicts. It started with a little girl counting daisy pedals and dissolved into a countdown sequence for a atom bomb detonation.
“And she’s picking a daisy and counting backwards and it dissolves into an image of a nuclear bomb and a mushroom cloud,” recalls Rash.
In the ad, which aired only once, the voice of President Johnson can be heard saying, “These are the stakes.”
“And that crystallized the concern in voters minds that Senator Goldwater couldn’t be trusted with his finger on nuclear trigger.”
The more recent example was the Swiftboat Veterans campaign of 2004 which hit Senator John Kerry’s strongest asset, his military career. Rash calls it the single most effective media buy ever.
“Because initially this group spent about $400,000 and they derailed an $80 million plus presidential campaign.”
He said Kerry’s most significant tactical error was to be slow in responding to the swift boaters.
“Eventually many political scientists decided that a charge unanswered becomes fact in voters minds within a 24-hour news cycle,” Rash told KARE-TV.
Steve Smith agreed the targets of effective negative ads can’t ignore them.
As he put it, “The person ahead in the polls tries to remain positive, but seeks to respond. So you respond a little bit, but you try not to go as negative as your opponent has gone. But you have to respond.”
Going After Opponent's Strength
The parallel can be found in the Mark Kennedy ad “Broken Promises” targeting Amy Klobuchar’s record as a prosecutor, comparing it to promises she made in her 1998 campaign. It goes after what most perceive as Klobuchar’s strong point, her record as a Hennepin County Attorney.
Klobuchar’s response was an ad featuring family members of crime victims praising the county attorney, and it ended with the Linda Longino, the mother of child murder victim Tyesha Edwards, scolding Kennedy for his previous ad.
“Mark Kennedy, you should be ashamed.”
Kennedy’s response is the spot most viewers know as “the old lady on the park bench.” In it local actress Beverly Carlson portrays a senior who harangues Kennedy for going negative on Klobuchar.
“Why are you picking on Amy Klobuchar?” Carlson asks Kennedy in the ad. She repeats the claims the Congressman has made about Klobuchar on Social Security, rationing drugs, benefits for illegal immigrants.
Kennedy responds by agreeing he’s said all of those things, and done so because they’re all true.
“While he did get his point across that he wanted to say that he thought all these charges were true, he also to some degree repeated Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign’s feeling that this is negative advertising and doesn’t have a place in a US Senate race in Minnesota,” says Rash.
“Yes it was effective, but it also in effect might have solidified the way people felt about negative campaigning and thus Congressman Kennedy.”
Kennedy took heat from Democrats in 2004 for running negative ads against his opponent in the 6th District congressional race, Patty Wetterling. Now negative advertising has become an issue in the race between the two women vying to replace him in Congress, Michele Bachmann and Patty Wetterling.
Wetterling Ad Controversy
In a debate in Mounds View Wednesday Bachmann repeated earlier demands that Wetterling stop running an ad which claims Bachmann favors a 23% national sales tax. The ad omits the fact that those pushing a national sales tax are advocating it as alternative to payroll taxes.
And Bachmann says she’d never supported the 23% version referred to in the Wetterling ad.
“We sent a letter to our opponent hand delivered to ask her to please take that ad off the television,” Bachmann said standing a few feet away from Wetterling.
Wetterling said she thoroughly researched all her ads and stands by the sales tax spot. She cites a Bachmann Op-Ed written in the Woodbury Bulletin in 2000 in which Bachmann urged eliminating the state income tax and replacing the revenue with higher sales taxes.
Wetterling points out that the National Republican Congressional Committee has been running attack ads that distort her record, saying she wants to undo President Bush’s tax cuts.
“I’ve had over $2 million of negative ads run against me so far, and I can tell you straight out I will not raise your taxes,” Wetterling told the debate crowd in Mounds View Wednesday, “It doesn’t matter what you see on TV.”
Bachmann, who often describes herself as a “tax attorney who hates taxes,” argues that her definition of a negative ad is one that’s untrue.
“What’s negative is to make false statements.That’s simply wrong. We have not made false statements about my opponents, I don’t intend to, we don’t need to.”
So why do you spots that tell you “Patty Wetterling just doesn’t get it” and will raise taxes on the middle class? Those ads aren’t paid for or endorsed by the Bachmann campaign. While the Senator stands to benefit from the ads they’re actually sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“Patty Wetterling opposes making our tax relief permanent.That means higher taxes on working families,” the ad’s female narrator can be heard saying.
Wetterling’s response? She plans to give middle class families tax breaks. As she put it, “You only have to worry if you’re Paris Hilton.”
If negative ads put candidates on defensive and change their agenda that’s what they’re designed to do, says Rash.
“Move a candidate away from what he or she wants to talk about to an area where they might have to defend themselves.”
Those who place the negative ads don't think of them as "negative" or even as attacks. They consider it an opportunity to define the opposition, to make an opponent accountable for previous stands, statements or voting records.
Whatever you call them, they'll be with us as long as politicians try to win votes with 30-second clips.
“The person who goes negative, continues to go negative as long as he’s behind,” says Steve Smith.
So until the election TV viewers can expect a steady diet of attacks, counter-attacks and counter-counter-attacks. For better or worse negative ads are here to stay because they work.
By John Croman, KARE 11 News.
To view classic political TV ads see the link on this page for The Living Room Candidate.
Copyright KARE-TV 2006