Do attack ads work in politics?

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Political attack ads work to varying degrees of effectiveness, as seen in the 2004 US presidential campaign and the infamous “Daisy” ad in 1964. However, campaigners must be cautious in their use and focus on campaign-related issues. Ads that attack a person’s character or personal issues can backfire and bring notoriety to the opponent. Despite denunciations, attack ads will continue to be used as long as candidates believe they are getting results.

There’s only one reason why campaigners spend so much time and effort announcing political attacks. They work. While they can work to varying degrees of effectiveness, there’s no question that, at least on some level, they do.

While political science majors write reports supporting both sides, and studies report findings both for and against the effectiveness of political attack ads, campaigners see it clearly. Many associated with John Kerry’s 2004 US presidential campaign blamed the attack ads for costing their candidate the election. That year, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of ads questioning Kerry’s service in Vietnam.

Political attack ads, mostly through television, had their inception during the 1964 election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. In an ad titled simply “Daisy,” a little girl is seen counting the petals of a flower. As the scene zooms in on her eye, a nuclear bomb explodes. Johnson thus provides a voice on promoting peaceful means of dealing with conflict. Johnson’s intention was clear. Goldwater was known as a war hawk who advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam and Russia.

Johnson won the election against Goldwater in a landslide. Many political analysts have credited that announcement as a turning point in the election. While Johnson may have won the election without the commercial, the margin of victory has largely been attributed to that ad.

However, while millions of dollars can be spent on negative campaigns in the form of political attack ads, campaigners need to be cautious in their use. Running political attack ads that are seen as attacks on a person’s character or personal issues can backfire. Ads need to focus on campaign-related issues in order to be most effective.

Announcements of political attacks also run the risk of bringing notoriety to the other candidate. There’s a reason product ads rarely mention other brands; they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. This is why such ads are often run comparing themselves to “the other leading brand”. However, most political ads mention their opponents because building the ad would be too awkward without doing it.

While most people in democratic nations deplore political attack ads, when done correctly, they can produce the desired effect for a campaign. Applicants are entitled to spend millions of dollars on this tactic simply because it can produce an immediate and lasting benefit. Eventually, attack ads will continue to be used, despite denunciations, as long as candidates believe they are getting results.

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