More than an Attack Ad: The Influence of the Dark Side of Political Campaigning

Attack ads have been a staple in political campaigns for decades. They are mostly centered around an individual’s character, policies, or past misdoings. Like a double-edged sword, they can both harm and help candidates in the heat of an election battle. So, what makes these ads so powerful, and why do they continue to captivate our attention? In this deep dive, we’ll unmask the power of the attack ad, revealing the dark side of political campaigning and the best tactics to reach the electorate.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov / Pexels - Politician Screaming At Adversary With a Megaphone for visual representation of an Attack Ad

Key Takeaways

  • Attack ads have been used in political campaigns since the 1960s, and their prevalence is on the rise.
  • They use fear, anger and disgust to influence emotions and guide decisions.
  • Their impact can range from influencing public opinion to polarizing voters. but reform efforts are underway to promote positive messaging instead.

The Evolution of Attack Ads

Daisy Attack Ad (1964) Preserved from 35mm in the Tony Schwartz Collection

Attack ads have evolved significantly over the years. We have come from the groundbreaking “Daisy Girl” ad of 1964 to today’s sophisticated campaigns. With the rise of television and the internet as platforms for advertising, the prevalence of negative spots has only increased. They often target controversial topics to sway voters.

Early beginnings: Daisy Girl and Beyond

The “Daisy Girl” advertisement, aired during the 1964 presidential election between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, is considered one of the most famous attack ads in history. The video featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy. But it quickly cuts to a nuclear explosion, implying that a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.

“Daisy” ad (1964), classic attack ad that played with people’s fear of war

But this wasn’t the only groundbreaking attack ad of its time. In 1952, there was another one that targeted Republicans for engaging in double-speak. Similarly, the growing influence of TV stations during this period lead to the rise of TV as a major platform for political advertisement. The impact of TV as a new medium was especially important during the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon campaign.

The style was generally different from political campaigns nowadays. It was common to use jingles and very announcer-like voices. These campaigns were characterized by catchy tunes and a classic radio broadcaster tone that resonated with the audience. This approach, while seemingly outdated by today’s standards, was effective in its time and laid the groundwork for the evolution of political campaigns as we know them today.

The rise of negativity in political advertising

Negative messaging became more prominent during Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, facilitated by the widespread use of television ads. This trend escalated to the point where negative campaign tactics allegedly resulted in the loss of over 6 million votes in the 1992 election (Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, Stanford). The growing prevalence and sophistication of attack ads have proportionally amplified their impact on voters and election outcomes.

Modern-day attack ads and their impact

Nowadays, attack ads significantly influence political discourse and election outcomes. Often focusing on issues like race, crime, economy and fear-mongering, attack ads use powerful imagery and symbols to evoke strong emotions in viewers. This can lead to voter polarization and disengagement, as well as immediate and lasting impacts on election results. However, they can also be seen as a way to denounce and voice real concerns regarding candidates and policies.

Political Demo from Danielle Famble

An attack ads can vary from solemn and sorrowful to mocking and ironic and anything in between. Instead of the announcer-like intonation, people prefer a more conversational approach. As mediums of communication have become more personal and interactive, so too have the methods of political discourse. The more conversational approach is designed to engage the audience on a more personal level, making the message feel less like a broadcast and more like a dialogue. This approach is particularly effective on social media platforms, where users are accustomed to engaging in conversations.

Anatomy of an Effective Attack Ad

Photo by cottonbro studio / Pexels - Man holding a sign encouraging people to vote

An effective attack ad is a carefully crafted blend of emotional elements, visual storytelling, and clear messaging. By tapping into the viewer’s emotions and using powerful imagery, negative attack ads can make a lasting impression and sway public opinion, making them a very effective strategy.

Emotional elements: fear, anger, and disgust

Fear, anger, and disgust are often used in attack ads to provoke intense emotional reactions from viewers.

  • Fear is a powerful emotional trigger that can influence how people think and act, making it a popular tool in attack ads.
  • Anger is another emotion commonly used in negative advertisements. By evoking anger in viewers, they can create a sense of urgency and mobilize voters to support a particular candidate or cause.
  • Disgust, on the other hand, can be employed to create a strong negative reaction and a sense of aversion towards the opponent or their actions.

Visual storytelling: powerful imagery and symbolism

Photo by Life Matters / Pexels - Frame of an Attack ad with a protest in Brooklyn's bridge

Visual storytelling is key to transmitting a message in attack ads. Powerful imagery and symbolism can create an emotional response and make the message more memorable. Unflattering photos, dark or ominous lighting, and pairing negative symbols with the adversary’s image are all examples of how attack ads use visual elements to create a negative image of the opponent. They can also use imagery of the issue itself, like showing pictures of public manifestations, schools in poor conditions, or stock pictures.

Messaging: simplicity, clarity, and emotional language

Effective messaging in attack ads relies on simplicity, clarity, and emotional language. By focusing on one clear and concise message, they can effectively get their point across and influence public opinion. Some advertising can go for a more subtle message, but the message should be clear enough for people to understand it.

Employing emotional language can leave a stronger impression on the audience. It could go from infuriating claims to solemn statements. This method helps ingrain the message into the public’s subconscious, enhancing its memorability and persuasiveness.

Controversial Examples: Attack Ads That Shook the Political Landscape

George H.W. Bush vs Michael Dukakis presidential campaign - Attack Ad featuring Willie Horton

Historically, several negative attack ads with controversial content have had a lasting impact on the political landscape. From the racially charged “Willie Horton” ad to the “Mirrors” ad highlighting Trump’s misogyny, these notorious examples have stirred up emotions and shaped public opinion.

Willie Horton: Race, crime, and fear-mongering

The “Willie Horton” ad, aired during the 1988 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, is one of the most famous attack ads in history. It featured Horton, an African-American man who was convicted of murder and released on weekend prison passes, a part of the prison furlough program that Dukakis supported. It overlaid different pictures of the candidates and used a masculine radio announcer voice to communicate the message.

The ad stirred up controversy due to its racially charged nature and its effect on the election. Critics accused the ad of playing on racial stereotypes and fears about crime, ultimately making Dukakis look weak on crime. Despite the backlash, the “Willie Horton” ad remains a classic example of a racially charged attack ad.

Mirrors: Trump’s misogyny and its impact on young girls

Attack ad against Trump, using his own words as a character statement

The “Mirrors” ad, focusing on Trump’s misogyny and its potential effects on young girls, used audio clips of the republican candidate making disparaging remarks about women. It featured footage of young girls looking at themselves in mirrors while the demeaning comments of Donald Trump played in the background, illustrating the effect of his misogyny on young girls’ self-esteem.

The Role of Outside Groups and Front Organizations

Photo by Pixabay / Pexels - Close-up of PAC member Holding a blank presentation card

External groups and front organizations have a significant presence in the sphere of attack ads, using Super PACs, dark money, and undisclosed agendas to fund and create these contentious ads. With the rise of Super PACs and the influence of dark money, attack advertisements have become even more potent tools in the hands of politicians.

The rise of Super PACs and dark money

Super political action committees (PACs), also known as independent expenditure-only committees, have gained prominence in political advertising since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. They are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates or issues, giving them significant influence on elections.

Super PACs commonly use negative advertisements as a strategy to discredit adversaries. With no limits on spending, Super PACs can finance and produce ads in support of or against certain candidates, often targeting their questionable stances, policies, and past misdoings to stir up emotions.

Hidden agendas and plausible deniability

Front organizations provide a buffer between candidates and controversial actions or messages, allowing them to maintain plausible deniability and protect their reputation. This strategy is particularly useful when the ad contains highly controversial or potentially damaging content. When they are based on false claims, negative ads can actually damage the public opinion of the very person they are trying to support.

By creating a distance between the candidate and the attack ad, front organizations can help shield politicians from backlash and criticism. However, this practice has been criticized for its lack of transparency, as it can obscure the true source of the ad’s funding and intentions.

Legal loopholes and campaign finance regulations

Present campaign finance regulations exhibit limited effectiveness in curbing negative campaigning and attack ads. The two argue the lack of clear punishment for candidates who spread false information in attack ads makes the regulations less effective.

Despite possible disadvantages, the persuasive power of negative advertising to sway voters and affect public opinion ensures their continued use in political campaigns.

The Effects of Attack Ads on Voters and Elections

Photo by Monstera Production / Pexels - Different parties trying to convince a woman on who to vote for

Attack ads have far-reaching consequences on voter behavior and election outcomes. Not only can they shape public opinion but also have the potential to polarize the voters and even disengage them.

By exploiting intense emotions and manipulating information, attack ads can yield short-term benefits but also cause long-term harm to the political landscape.

Voter reactions: polarization and disengagement

Attack ads are particularly effective when the race is close and every vote counts because they can increase the vote share in favor of the advertiser (Which Type of Voice Actor Should You Use for Your Explainer Video? Ben Labay). We all know an advantage like this can make it or break it when a party wants to achieve house majority. However, this might be partially related to the fact that they also decrease turnouts. Negative ads can be particularly influential in an already polarized political environment, where voter turnout is crucial to ensure a fair and representative outcome.

They can induce voter polarization by depicting rivals as radical or intolerable, thereby deepening divisions among voters along party lines. This can result in a more hostile political environment and a lack of trust in the political system.

Voter disengagement occurs when negative campaigns turn off voters, causing them to lose interest in the democratic process. This can lead to a decrease in voter turnout and participation in elections, ultimately weakening the democratic process. With this in mind, it’s crucial to give people reasons to vote for the advertising candidate or party instead of only vilifying their adversary.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov / Pexels - Polititian Attacking Her Adversary

Impact on election results: Is it worth it?

While attack ads can sway undecided voters in the short-term, they can also harm a candidate’s reputation. Not only that: the political landscape in the long-term. They can erode public discourse and civility, leading to voter disillusionment and apathy. However, they can also stimulate political discussions, which is central to democracy. These discussions can promote critical thinking and enable voters to make more informed decisions. But it’s crucial to base these campaigns on facts, not misinformation and fear-mongering. Therefore, voters need to approach these discussions critically, and media and educational institutions must promote media literacy and critical thinking skills.

Strategies for countering attack ads and negative campaigning

To counter the effects of attack ads and negative campaigning, candidates can focus on promoting positive messaging, engaging in issue-based discussions, and using fact-checking to combat misinformation. By emphasizing unity, collaboration, and their ability to bring people together, candidates can help restore trust in the political process and encourage voter engagement.

The Future of Attack Ads in Political Campaigns

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels - crop-person waching attack ad in smartphone against blurred american flag

The future of attack ads is being shaped by the emergence of social media, fact-checking, and demands for reform, all of which are influencing modern political campaigns. These developments offer both new opportunities and challenges in the ongoing struggle to balance free speech, transparency, and accountability in the world of political advertising.

Social media and the rise of online attack ads

In recent years, attack ads have found a popular platform on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The vast user bases and advanced targeting options of social media platforms enable attack ads to reach a wider audience. It also allows for the rapid dissemination and sharing of content.

The rise of online attack ads presents new challenges and opportunities for political campaigns. On one hand, social media enables campaigns to connect directly with voters and disseminate their messages quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, the anonymity and rapid spread of information on social media can also contribute to the proliferation of misinformation and the manipulation of public opinion.

Fact-checking and combating misinformation

In the era of digital misinformation, fact-checking is a crucial instrument for contesting false claims and deceptive assertions in attack ads. By verifying the accuracy of these claims and providing reliable information to the public, fact-checkers help to promote transparency and accountability in political advertising.

Calls for reform

As the public grows increasingly weary of negative campaigning and attack ads, there is a growing call for reform and a return to positive messaging in political communication. By focusing on unity, collaboration, and constructive dialogue, candidates, including those from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, can help restore trust in the political process and encourage voter engagement.

The Modern Approach to Voice Over in Negative Ads

Photo by CoWomen / Pexels - Female voice actors proofreading attack ad in front of black microphone

Voice over can play a critical role in the effectiveness of an attack ad. It helps establish the tone, convey emotions, and influence the viewer’s perception of the message. The modern approach to voice over in attack ads has seen a shift towards a more personal and conversational style.

Make it Personal

In the past, attack ads often featured an authoritative, announcer-like voice. Today, however, there’s a trend of using a more personal and relatable voice over. This approach aims to create a connection with the viewer and make the message feel less like a broadcast and more like a conversation. It’s about engaging the viewer on a personal level, making them feel directly addressed and involved.

The Power of Tone

The tone of the voice over can significantly impact the effectiveness of an attack ad. An angry or outraged tone can stir up similar feelings in the viewer, while a calm and rational tone can lend more credibility to the message. The choice of tone should align with the overall strategy of the ad and the emotions it aims to evoke in the viewer.

Choose the Right Voice: A Female Voice

Choosing the right voice for the voice over is crucial. Recently, there’s been a rise in the use of female voices in attack ads. A study concluded that female voices were more common and more effective for negative ads. This is possibly a way to counterbalance the inherent negativity of the attack ad. A female voice actor could make the message more persuasive and impactful (Which Type of Voice Actor Should You Use for Your Explainer Video? Ben Labay). However, the choice of voice should always consider the target audience and the specific context of the ad.


Attack ads have played a significant role in shaping political discourse and election outcomes. As we look to the future, the evolving landscape of political advertising presents both challenges and opportunities. Hopefully, we will move towards promoting transparency, accountability, and positive messaging.