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5 Famous Negative Ads

In American Politics

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Why do political candidates use negative ads? The most common answer you'll hear from analysts is: Because they work.

Some of the most famous negative ads in campaign history proved to either sow doubts about a particular candidate or completely destroy his campaign. Here are five of the most well known negative ads.

Daisy Girl

Lyndon Johnson
Central Press/Getty Images

The most famous and successful negative ad in American political history is without question "Daisy Girl," which ran only once on television during the 1964 presidential race before President Lyndon Johnson pulled it from the airwaves. It was, however, replayed on TV news several times.

Once was enough. The ad successfully scared Americans about the potential for nuclear war if Republican Barry Goldwater, who was painted as an extremist, were to be elected president.

"This ad implies that Senator Goldwater is a reckless man and Lyndon Johnson is a careful man," the Republican National Committee said at the time.

The "Daisy Girl" television ad opened with the image of a young girl plucking petals off a flower when an ominous countdown is heard in the background. At zero, there is a blast and a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion.

The ad was created by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency.

A male narrator reads: "These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other, or we must die."

Another male narrator states: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The ad was considered so effective that the liberal group MoveOn.org made its own version of "Daisy Girl" in January 2003. The newer ad, which ran 30 seconds and cost the group $400,000, was an attempt to warn American voters about a looming war in Iraq and to argue for continued United Nations weapons inspections in the country.

Willie Horton

George H.W. Bush
Chris Graythen/Getty Images News

Republican George H.W. Bush's "Willie Horton" negative ad in 1988 was notable for its use of race to attempt to scare American voters out of supporting Democrat Michael Dukakis, whom he portrayed as being soft on crime.

Horton is an African-American man convicted of murder in Massachusetts. He was allowed to take part in a furlough program but didn't return to prison one weekend in 1986. During his escape, according to authorities, Horton raped a woman and stabbed her fiance.

Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Horton's escape and supported the furlough program.

In the Bush ad, a male narrators reads:

Bush and Dukakis on crime: Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.

Swift Boat

John Kerry
Alex Wong/Getty Images News

An independent group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of negative ads in the 2004 presidential election questioning Democratic nominee John Kerry's military record. Kerry is a decorated Vietnam veteran.

One of the Swift Boat ads accused Kerry of lying to American officials to obtain some of his medals. Navy records contradicted the Republican-funded group's claims, and some of Kerry's former crewman came to his defense. Republican nominee George W. Bush also criticized some of the group's tactics during the campaign.

Still, the group's accusations caused lasting harm to Kerry's campaign. They proved that if you make a claim often enough, many people will believe it regardless of whether it is true. The term "Swift Boating" someone emanated from the group's activity.

3 a.m. Phone Call

Hillary Clinton
Getty Images

Former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton went on TV during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries with an aid designed to sow fear among voters. The negative ad did not mention her opponent, Barack Obama, but it was seen as being somewhat effective at portraying him as being unprepared to hold the highest office in the United States, particularly on international affairs and national security issues.

The ad takes place in a darkened bedroom in the middle of the night. A narrator reads:

It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military — someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?

Tank Ride

Michael Dukakis
Bachrach

Republican George H.W. Bush was successful at painting Democrat Michael Dukakis as weak on defense during the 1988 presidential race. Bush's negative ad showing Dukakis notably out of his element wearing a helmet and riding in a tank is among the most effective in campaign history.

The male narrator of the "Tank Ride" ad read:

Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the stealth bomber, a ground emergency warning system against nuclear testing. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can't afford that risk.

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