I love attack ads. They actually tell you something and bring the contrasts between the candidates into sharp focus.
Put another way, the firm believed that viewers should not be given too much information to put their minds and emotions to work. And Daisy Girl’s DNA has continued to provide instructions for today’s political advertising: Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 “Bear” spot used the animal to symbolize the Soviet Union without explicitly making the association. In 2004, Bush’s campaign skillfully employed the same technique with a spot that used wolves to symbolize al Qaeda.
Voting is not a purely rational act. As the late journalist Joe McGinnis observed, it’s a “psychological purchase” of a candidate. It’s often no less rational than buying a car or a house. DDB understood that arguing with voters would be a losing proposition. To persuade someone, especially in the political realm, a campaign must target emotions. Voters don’t oppose a candidate because they dislike his or her policies; they often oppose the policies because they dislike the candidate.
Reagan’s optimistic 1984 “Morning in America” spot was a good example of this kind of appeal. So was George H.W. Bush’s dark, fear-inducing “Revolving Door” spot in 1988 that exploited the controversy over a prison furlough program of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis. Bernie Sanders’ “America” spot is a current example. They are all very different ads, but are aimed at generating a non-rational, emotional response.
DDB also believed that giving data and facts was less persuasive than telling a story. The best spots provide an experience. In addition to evoking emotions and not repeating what the viewer already knew, many of the DDB spots from 1964 had a narrative arc to them. A good example in 1964 was a Johnson spot reminding viewers of the many harsh attacks on Goldwater by his former GOP opponents. The gold standard for subsequent spots in this genre may be Bill Clinton’s 60-second “Journey” spot from 1992, in which he touted his small-town American values by recounting his childhood in Hope, Arkansas.
The latest example of Key derangement syndrome, a photo essay, reminded me of a story about some prime time TV network current affairs coverage of Ronald Reagan early in his first term. It was a long piece arguing that he was not a very good president.
The White House communications director Mike Dever rung up the journalist and thanked him for the coverage. The journalist did not understand why did not understand why.
Dever said that collection of TV clips they put together were excellent – some of the best they have seen. They showed Reagan meeting congressional leaders, business, the public and foreign leaders. Dever said the only thing that the public will remember is the images of Reagan as a hard-working world leader but still a man of the people.
John G. Geer, author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, argues that negative ads are positive. They focus on important political issues and give voters critical information about differences between candidates. Attack ads do not degrade, but rather enrich the democratic process. When political candidates attack each other, they raise doubts about each other’s views and qualifications. Voters—and the democratic process—benefit from this clash of opinions.