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The History of Political Attack Ads

by Alex Gauthier, published

Dirty campaigning has probably existed since cavemen needed to elect someone to handle fire for the first time. In the modern sense, muddy political tactics have taken the form of the attack ad.

An attack ad seeks to paint the opponent as incompetent, corrupt, or otherwise undesirable. The 2012 campaign season has exploded with negative political advertisements, so it might be beneficial to see the origins of this little appreciated art form. This history of attack ads features races from the 60's all the way up to the present day. Though many notable ads have been left out, these highlight the hyperbolic and nasty turn that negative campaigning can take.


Arguably the most infamous campaign to create and run 'attack ads' as we now understand them, was the Lyndon Banes Johnson campaign in 1964. With the Cold War in full swing, mounting tension in Vietnam, and the assassination of President Kennedy only months ago, the Johnson Campaign released this ad.

LBJ attack ad on Barry Goldwater:

It was an attempt to paint Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater as reckless and likely to cause a global holocaust. To describe this ad, hyperbole is an understatement, and the public were overwhelmingly appalled when it broadcast for the first and only time on September 7, 1964. Needless to say, Johnson won the presidency handily.


The Nixon Campaign in 1968 released this ad against Democratic opponent Hubert Humphery:

The ad, titled 'Convention' uses no text or words except "This time vote like your whole world depended on it, NIXON." It played on the widespread turmoil that was plaguing the country. The civil rights movement came to a head with the assassination of Martin Luther King , Jr, protests against the Vietnam war were rampant, and capped with a violent altercation at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The ad, without uttering a word, painted Humphery as incapable, ineffective, and unable to stand up to the mounting challenges the country was facing. Nixon won in a nail-biter, 43% to 42% over Humphery.


Playing the race card has become an insult in politics, but it used to be a viable campaign strategy. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis ran this ad:

The ad features Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, who raped, assaulted and robbed a local couple while out on a weekend furlough from his life sentence in prison. This ad has become the quintessential example of a candidate using race to scare voters away from an opponent. Bush went on to win the 1988 election; the third-consecutive Republican landslide for a presidential race.


The Kerry campaign of 2004 wasn't particularly well run. To add insult to injury, George W. Bush ran this ad:

The now well known, 'flip-flopper' accusation originated from this ad. Not to say that pointing out political inconsistencies hadn't happened before the 2004 campaign, but this ad really took the wind out of Kerry's sails.


The Romney campaign's latest ad claims that Obama's policies have been sending auto jobs for Jeep to China:

The ad has garnered severe criticism since it was released earlier this week. Many commentators have pointed out the misleading nature of the ad, President Obama included. In this election both sides have utilized negative campaign ads:

The history of political attack ads surely reaches back farther than 1964. Politicians insist that negative campaigning works, but when each side is doing it, it's difficult to measure overall effectiveness. One thing that is for certain, however, attack ads are here to stay.

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