A Concise History of Presidential Attack Ads

    January 31, 2012 at 5:44 am

    Politicians have been saying/writing nasty things about each other since the earliest days of the American republic.  When television was invented, it made it that much easier for those seeking elected office to propagate negative attacks on their opponents.  Currently, we find ourselves in the midst of the race for the Republican nomination, which has gotten increasingly virulent.  Most recently there has been a minor kerfuffle regarding a Romney ad using footage of Tom Brokaw to attack Newt Gingrich.  So, in honor of what is surely to be a year of misleading, contemptible, and generally mean 30 second spots, we’ve compiled a brief history of negative Presidential ads!

    Lyndon B. Johnson


    Lyndon Johnson was not known for his subtlety.  In fact, LBJ was just about as blunt as a Civil War era bone saw.  In keeping with this trait, he released perhaps the most famous of all campaign ads.  The 1964 election was the first to truly utilize negative ads en masse, and Republican challenger Barry Goldwater was on the receiving end of a PR thrashing due to an atomic 60 second spot.  The ad is striking, and at the same time unintentionally hilarious.  An adorable little girl is plucking a daisy in a pastoral setting…and then an atom bomb blows up the planet!  The message was clear; GOLDWATER WANTS TO IRRADIATE YOUR CHILDREN!  Hide yo kids, hide yo wife, vote for Johnson.

    John F. Kennedy


    JFK was the first president perfectly suited for the television age.  It therefore stands to reason that he released one of the earliest examples of combative TV ads.  This 1960 ad in particular offers an ‘oh snap’ moment at the expense of his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon.  Using a soundbite from an interview with outgoing President Eisenhower, the ad makes Nixon seem like kind of an inconsequential dunce.  Not good if you’re running for President.  And Nixon didn’t stand a chance either during the first televised debate where he went toe-to-toe with the impeccably well-quaffed Kennedy.  But luckily for him, Nixon would go on to win the White House in 1968 after the failed Johnson administration, ultimately earning himself a…um…memorable spot in the pantheon of U.S. Presidents.

    Swiftboat Veterans For Truth


    In this 2004 Swiftboat Veterans ad, presidential contender John Kerry is demonized for essentially going on record and talking about what a drag Vietnam was.  Because, you know, if you don’t have anything nice to say about the butchery you witnessed during an ill-conceived quagmire of death and despair, keep your mouth shut dummy!  Despite George W. Bush’s own less-than-heroic war record, the Swiftboat ads were incredibly successful, and Kerry lost the election.  The dubious nature of the ads have led to the term ‘Swiftboat’ to become a part of modern American political vernacular.  Urbandictionary defines ‘Swiftboating’ as “to distort history for political purposes, especially in a vicious personal attack.”  But at least Kerry distinguishes himself in the video by using the correct pronunciation of Genghis Khan.  Always got to look out for that key Mongolian vote.

    Dwight D. Eisenhower


    This ad should be re-titled “Hey buster, vote for Ike.  He’s a swell guy, I tells ya.”  Eisenhower has a lot on his mind…at least according to a pensive cab driver that lurks around the white house in the dead of night.  Although not particularly negative (after all, people didn’t become assholes until the early sixties) this 1956 campaign film contains all the overblown rhetoric we see and hear today.  Ike is just a simple guy that works hard and wants to keep America clean and thrifty.  He’s a man that’s constantly thinking about farms, assembly lines, and freckled faced kids in coonskin hats learning about ‘rithmatic in school.  Is that an apple pie I smell cooling on a window sill?  Of course it is, because Ike is president.  He and his ol’ pal Nixon have things on the up and up.  So next time you’re walking your shaggy dog by the white house, take a minute to think about the man making decisions in there (and hope to God it’s Eisenhower.)

    Hillary Clinton


    Nothing good happens after midnight.  And when you’re President, only catastrophic things happen at 3am.  When Hillary Clinton faced off against (now President) Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, she put out an ad extolling this very fact.  Replete with all the aesthetics of a bad horror flick, this ad proposes that unless your president has the intestinal fortitude to field a mystery call at 3 o’clock in the morning, some horrible tragedy will befall your family.  Could it be murder?  Disease?  Terrorism?  Earthquake?  Asteroid?  Gypsy curse?  It could be ALL of those things.  Your vote counts, dammit!  Don’t screw this up!  But then again, the call could just be someone phoning to say “Hi madam president!  Sorry to wake you, but I just wanted to let you know what a beautiful afternoon we’re having in Kiev right now!”  If this is the case, the President shouldn’t act cranky.  That would cause a diplomatic incident, and yet ANOTHER 3am phone call.

    George H.W. Bush


    According to this 1988 George Bush ad, Michael Dukakis hearts convicted murderers.  It’s pretty straight forward. The facts presented make it sound like Dukakis was running a Club Med for death row inmates.  George Bush’s pro-death penalty stance versus Dukakis’s weekend murder parties?  Yikes.  This ad would have made Nero blush.  Dukakis would go on to lose in a landslide.  In fact, much like ‘Swiftboating’, Dukakis’s name has become the very definition of someone who enters a situation with the best of intentions, but ends up failing due to unforeseen obstacles.  As in “Man, I was totally about to make it with that chick I met at Chet’s birthday party, but I fell asleep while we were watching Maid in Manhattan and she got all pissed and left.  I AM SUCH A DUKAKIS!”

    Bill Clinton


    Have you ever repeated your name out loud over and over again, and notice that after a while it starts to sound really weird?  That same basic principal applies to this 1992 anti-Bush ad put out by Bill Clinton.  Take one line from a Bush speech, repeat it, then ad in ominous music and uncomfortable close-ups, and suddenly H.W. Bush goes from embattled incumbent to creepy sociopath.  He might as well be saying “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”  This ad is also pretty great because they managed to find a clip of Bush sounding exactly like Dana Carvey’s  impression of himself.

    Herman Cain


    *Embedding was disabled for this video, but you can watch it here.

    No doubt you’ve seen this video played and skewered ad nauseam.  Fresh from the current bout for the Republican nomination, this bizarre Herman Cain ad has set the standard for awful political missteps.  Herman Cain is no longer a candidate, due in large part to strange content like this, and of course certain (alleged) dalliances outside of marriage.  It’s tough to pinpoint where this ad goes wrong.  Is it the country & western dubstep playing throughout?  The odd meter with which Mark Block speaks?  The blotchy mustache?  The cigarette?  You be the judge.  To his credit, though, Cain has been a good sport about being such a train wreck.  He recently went on the road with Stephen Colbert during the South Carolina primary.

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