An attack ad is a short, 15-60 second piece of political advertising almost always aired during an electoral campaign - but maybe as a third party ad. It is the key feature of negative campaigning and is often used to discredit a key political figure.
Common features of such an ad include
- Memorable sound bites that are intended to be repeated by the public on the street and in discussions about how to vote, e.g. "not up to the job", employed by the Ontario Tories against Dalton McGuinty in 2003.
- Memorable conceptual metaphors that can serve to smear opponents, e.g. the revolving door used to smear Michael Dukakis in 1988 by implying that he was "soft on crime" in Massachusetts.
- To avoid libel claims, relying on deliberate ambiguity and fatuously extreme assertions beyond legal liability
- Humor, especially in combination with the above.
If it fails, an attack ad campaign can be "spun" into "good fun" by simply extending the conceptual metaphors or extreme assertions to humorous lengths. Evil reptilian kitten eater from another planet details one such case - maybe. Ambiguity exists on this level too, as it is easy to reinforce a campaign of attack ads with generally negative or humorous comments. Only an expert or direct opponent would note the tendency of conceptual metaphors to keep reinforcing each other - the soul of propaganda techniques and ideology itself.
Attack ads utilize a variety of propaganda techniques to influence opinions. Propagandists sometimes find attack ads to be more cost effective than other tactics. Attack ads may be presented through a variety of broadcast or print sources but usually are intended to deliver a specific message to a select audience. Rather than support a position held by the advertiser, attack messages target an opponent's platform, track record, background or character.
Though the propaganda technique often is devoid of subtlety or diplomacy, attack advertising offers a powerful approach that is much used and abused. In the United States, both the Republican and Democratic parties have exploited attack ads. While allegations in attack ads frequently are blunt or even exaggerated, accusations at other times are phrased subtly or vaguely so the targeted individual or organization cannot seek legal action against the advertiser.
Elements of attack ads can include:
- ad hominem arguments
- arbitrary topics
- broad generalizations
- character flaws
- false characterizations
- irrelevant information
- loose associations
- oxymoronic language
- partial information
- specific allegations
- vague allegations
For an attack ad to be effective, the message probably needs to be believable. Repulsive imagery conveyed in attack ads might reinforce allegations or mask outright character attacks. The ads often rely on resonance of the message to attract the attention of audience members to a message most other listeners or viewers will ignore.
Attack ads tend to promote ambivalence toward the attacked individual's ideas and toward those holding similar views. Attack ads may reference a supposed flaw or weakness in personality, beliefs, lifestyle, convictions or principles of an individual or organization. These attack ads are used to refute a particular proposition based solely upon some unrelated fact about the person presenting the proposition. Such refutation is said to be "against the person" (ad hominem) and not their proposition.
Abusive attack ads sometimes employ mere insults, sometimes with no basis in fact, but can also involve pointing out factual but damning character flaws or actions. Attack ads sometimes point out "hypocrisy" of an individual or organization. Attack ads at other times attack the bias of a person. Attack ads attempt to expose inconsistencies in an opponent’s rhetoric or to show that an opponent's rhetoric is inconsistent with their actions. Attack ads sometimes include false implications masked by otherwise truthful statements. Circumstantial attack ads point to circumstances that could imply a person would be predisposed to take a particular position, such as exposing sources of an opponent's campaign fund.
By manipulating salient tidbits of information, attack ads can suggest the totality of information points toward the propagandist's preferred conclusion. Attack ads can take the form of repeated, unapologetic, systematic distortion of facts, or otherwise implying (or asserting) that opponents "are" bad, evil, stupid, untrustworthy, guilty of reprehensible acts or part of some undesirable category.
Attack ads often appeal to emotion and discourage reasonable discussion. Ad hominem suggestions in attack ads promote doubt about whether the target is reliable or believable, encouraging ambivalence toward the target and toward the target's platform. The propagandist can then exploit the arising ambivalence by suggesting an alternative to the attack target's proposals.
Some attack ads predict with certainty future events based on a few select circumstances. Attack ad propagandists sometimes make unwarranted extrapolations to predict dire circumstances from vague risks. Thus, these attack ads exploit fear or anger to encourage compliance with suggestions the listener might otherwise reject.
Advertisements that attack real flaws and that expose inconsistencies in an opponent's rhetoric are a vital part of the public political process. Public officials, politicians, media representatives, and advocates tend to disagree at times about the propriety or relevance of attack ads.
For reasons sometimes unbeknownst even to advertisers, attack ads don't always work. Rhetorical attacks can sometimes backfire. Attack tactics attempt to seize rhetorical high ground, either by aggressive reasoning or by irrational suggestion. But a target can sometimes defend against attack advertising by claiming to be above "mud slinging" or "dirty politics," citing the attack ad as an example of its sponsor's unfit character, unreasonable behavior, lack of diplomacy or poor public manners.
Anyone involved in political discourse would do well to become acquainted with attack ads.
See also: rumor
Resources and articles
Related SourceWatch articles
- America's PAC#2004 Voter Suppression Ads
- Americans for Honesty on Issues
- Bush administration smear campaigns: John Forbes Kerry: Latest Headlines
- "Backer of Kerry Swift Boat Attack Ads Funding Group Targeting Democrats", Fox News, September 16, 2006.
- Ben Protess and Lagan Sebert, "Anatomy of an Attack Ad", The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, September 24, 2009.
- Robert Mackey, "Mock Canadian Attack Ad of the Year", The New York Times, October 15, 2010.