Negative ads in political campaigns have been credited with turning a race. Many blame the notorious Willy Horton ad in part for causing Michael Dukakis to lose his bid for president in 1988. But today, the millions of dollars flooding into campaign superPACs have changed the game – many believe for the worse.
The 1964 ad supporting President Lyndon Johnson for president that showed a young girl, a countdown, and a mushroom cloud – the so-called “daisy” ad – was a sort of turning point for negative campaign tactics, said Jamieson. What made the daisy ad different was that its impact was
achieved largely through magnification; that is, other media outlets decided to cover the ad itself, magnifying its influence. Some of the superPAC ads from the current campaign cycle are also gaining extra airtime on cable, similarly magnifying their impact, Jamieson said.
Not Just About The Money
The nature of attack ads can be just as important as the amount of money that goes into producing them. This election cycle has seen very serious character attacks, Jamieson said. The rise of superPACS has also taken a lot of the accountability out of the process of producing negative ads, Weber said.
The Media’s Role
Some media outlets like FactCheck.org aim to assess the content of political ads for truthfulness and call out those that are blatant lies, but Weber emphasized again that the media “plays both of the fence” when it comes to negative ads because attack ads make for interesting content. “Back in 2004, the infamous Swift boat ad that hurt Senator Carrie was only aired to 1 percent of the population and yet 80 percent of the people thought they saw it by the end of the campaign. Why? ‘Cause the news media gave it massive coverage,” Weber said.
What The Ads Are NOT About
Mayer pointed out that the most negative ads are not about policy decisions, but rather about cultural issues. Weber said that the campaigns themselves have talked about serious issues, even if the discussions are not reflected in the ads. “There’s no absence of information out there about where the candidates stand on a whole range of issues,” Weber said.
You can read the full transcript here.