The Power of Negative Television Campaign Ads

In a world where television and digital campaign ads play such a significant role in shaping public opinion, the power of negative campaigning and its impact on voters cannot be underestimated. From exploiting voter fears to crafting the most effective attack ad, the art of political advertising is ever-evolving. Let’s delve into the world of negative campaign ads on television.

Key Takeaways

  • Negative ads have been proven to influence election outcomes, with Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad from 1964 being one of the most successful examples.
  • Crafting an effective attack ad requires a perfect balance of emotion, controversy and truth to stand out and create an emotional reaction without backfiring.
  • Positive ads are essential in campaigns to build trust & counterbalance negative campaigning
  • Digital advertising has become go-to for cost-effectiveness & targeted experiences.

The Impact of Negative Ads on Voters

Photo by Mikael Blomkvist / Pexels Man Speaking Out Against a candidate

Negative political advertising has greatly influenced election results. Attack ads, or ads that underscore an opposing candidate’s flaws, are known to stir up voter fears and anxieties.

A prime example of an impactful attack ad is the “Daisy” ad from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 U.S. presidential campaign. The ad suggested that voting for his opponent, Barry Goldwater, could result in a nuclear disaster, effectively swaying public opinion and aiding in Johnson’s election win.

Voter Fears and Anxieties

Attack ads, often part of negative campaigns, typically highlight potential risks or undesirable outcomes linked to the candidate’s opponent or their policies, thereby exploiting voter fears and anxieties. One prime example is the aforementioned “Daisy” ad, which played on the fear of nuclear war to discourage voters from supporting Goldwater.

Negative ads can significantly influence elections by tapping into voters’ fears and shaping public opinion. Despite increasing anxiety among voters, these ads provide an opportunity to address serious issues before casting votes.

Independent Voters and Negative Political Advertising

Negative ads used in political campaigns can effectively stimulate political discussions, making them a useful tool for reaching independent voters. These ads can shift voter perceptions by painting a negative image of the opposing candidate using emotions such as fear, anger, or disgust. Historical examples, such as the 1956 election rematch between Eisenhower and Stevenson, show how negative ads have been used to influence independent voters. These ads aim to discredit opposing candidates or parties to shape public opinion and gain votes.

The Art of Crafting Effective Attack Ads

Photo by Nothing Ahead / Pexels - Person with remote controller watching Political ad on tv

Creating effective attack ads involves leveraging emotions and controversy, while also highlighting a candidate’s weaknesses. A successful attack ad should stand out and create a stronger emotional reaction than positive campaigning, making it more memorable and potentially the most effective attack ad on voters (Why attack Ads? Because they work; Los Angeles Times).

However, negative campaigning can be risky. Ads that aren’t true or are too outrageous can easily backfire, damaging the credibility of the candidate running the ad. Spreading misinformation is the wrong way to catch people’s attention. That’s why achieving the appropriate balance of emotion, controversy, and truth is key when creating a potent negative ad.

Emotion and Controversy

Effective attack ads rely on emotion and controversy. Ads that evoke strong feelings like anger, fear, or disgust can leave a lasting impression. The “Daisy” ad from the 1964 U.S. presidential election is a prime example. It used powerful imagery to suggest that electing Barry Goldwater could lead to nuclear war. This fear-based approach seized attention and swayed public opinion.

Targeting a Candidate’s Weaknesses

Effective attack ads often target a candidate’s weaknesses. This involves researching the candidate’s background, voting record, policies, and public statements to find potential areas of criticism. It’s important to ensure the information presented is honest and accurate, respecting privacy, and considering its impact on the electoral process.

The Role of Contrast Ads

Photo by RDNE Stock project / Pexels - Candidate speaking in the podium

Contrast ads have a notable role in political campaigns because of their dual nature. These ads underscore the differences between candidates or their policies while highlighting the positive traits of the sponsoring candidate. By effectively comparing the flaws of the opposing candidate with the strengths of the sponsoring candidate, comparative ads can shape public opinion and sway voters.

Balancing Negativity and Positivity

Contrast ads balance negative and positive messaging, emphasizing differences between candidates or issues. They criticize the opponent while promoting the sponsoring candidate’s strong points. This strategy influences voter perception. By highlighting the weaknesses of one candidate and the strengths of the other, these ads can sway public opinion. Balancing negativity and positivity can affect voter turnout. Negative campaigning can decrease turnouts, but increase the advertiser’s vote share. Conversely, positive advertising may boost voter turnout.

Examples of Successful Contrast Ads

An example of effective comparative ads comes from the Biden/Harris campaign, which used positive messaging to create a good image of the candidates and attract voters based on their strengths and policies.

In the 2020 presidential election, the Biden/Harris ad provided a positive and uplifting message. It cleverly used language similar to the opponent’s slogan, replacing “Make America Great Again” with “To lead America, unite America, and heal America“. This twist not only positioned the candidate as a unifying force, but also subtly criticized the divisiveness of the opponent’s campaign.

Female Voices in Negative Campaigning

Photo by Karolina Grabowska - A female voice in a negative campaign ad

Choosing the right voice for a negative ad is crucial. Research suggests that female voices are often preferred in such campaigns as they can somewhat soften the backlash (Strach et al.). The benefits of using female voices in negative political ads include:

  • Challenging gender norms
  • Presenting female candidates as assertive
  • Enhancing the ad’s overall impression

Effectively, female voices can significantly shape voters’ views on the candidates and their policies when used strategically in political attack ads.

Here are some examples of negative political advertising:

Less Backlash

Attack ads can be off-putting to some viewers, hence the need for a balanced tone and voice. Female voices, often perceived as less aggressive, can make negative ads seem less harsh. They’re also seen as more caring, potentially increasing tolerance for such ads. Additionally, female voices in attack ads promote a more balanced representation in political discourse, contributing to gender equality.

Persuasive Power

Female voices can be highly persuasive in negative political campaigns. Their tone can infuse a sense of calmness, even with critical content. The softer qualities of female voices can temper aggressive content, conveying empathy and concern that resonates with voters. This emotional connection enhances their persuasive power and fosters a deeper understanding of the issues.

Positive Ads as a Counterbalance

Photo by RDNE Stock project / Pexels - Candidate Smiling for Positive Ad

Positive ads, which build trust and demonstrate competency, are vital in political campaigns as they counterbalance negative ads. Keep in mind that it’s not just about not choosing the opponent – It’s about choosing a better alternative.

Studies show that positive campaigns are more effective at encouraging people to support a candidate than negative campaigning. By focusing on the candidate’s strengths and positive attributes, positive advertising inspires confidence in voters and demonstrates the candidate’s competency to effectively address the issues and challenges facing the community or country.

Building Trust and Competency

Positive ads aim to build trust, display competency, and create a favorable impression of the candidate. They highlight a candidate’s attributes, achievements, and values, presenting them as relatable, compassionate, and reliable. These qualities influence voters’ decisions. Elements such as authenticity, personal stories, policy focus, positive messaging, and credible endorsements in positive advertising can foster a strong connection with the audience, influencing election outcomes.

Examples of Successful Positive Ads

The Biden/Harris campaign effectively used positive messaging to create a favorable image of the candidates, attracting voters based on their strengths and policies. This strategy involved highlighting the candidates’ extensive political experience, their commitment to unity and inclusivity, as well as their comprehensive plans to address pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and racial inequality.

The campaign’s positive messaging was further amplified through various mediums including social media, television commercials, and virtual town hall meetings, reaching a broad audience and effectively communicating the candidates’ vision for a better America.


In summary, negative ads in political campaigns combined with female voices significantly influence public opinion and election results. The evolution of campaign advertising requires candidates to adapt and use new platforms and strategies. The success of future campaigns will hinge on balancing negative and positive advertising and utilizing diverse voices and innovative tactics.