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TV ads play a key role in modern political campaigning. They can reach hundreds of thousands of voters, if not more. Often combining striking images with snappy sound bites and evocative music, they constitute a very powerful vehicle for character attacks. Here, we provide links and comments to many negative ads from the US and other countries.

United States Presidential Elections

John Kerry: “Whichever way the wind blows”

Character attacks are most effective when they succeed in sticking a negative label to an opponent. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Republican ads repeatedly presented Democrat candidate John Kerry as a spineless flip-flopper going “whichever way the wind blows”.

Hubert Humphrey: Bringing the country to the brink of destruction

In 1968, America was shaken up by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, as well as by nationwide race riots and massive protests against the Vietnam War. Amidst this turmoil, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee for the presidency. His Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, attacked him in an ad which alternated stills of Humphrey’s face with disturbing images of street violence and Vietnam victims, accompanied by dissonant music. At the end, viewers were urged: “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it”, implying that Humphrey and President Johnson were responsible for the current chaos. The ad raised so much criticism that it was soon pulled off the air.

United States Other Elections

Kay Hagan: Godless American

The 2008 Senate election spawned one of the most notorious character attacks in recent US politics. Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who ran for re-election, launched an ad in which her opponent, Democrat candidate Kay Hagan, was associated with the Godless Americans PAC, an organization advocating the rights of atheists. The ad shows Hagan attending a fundraiser hosted by one of the leaders of the Godless Americans and implies that she would be susceptible to the organization’s agenda, which includes removing the words “In God We Trust” from the currency and abolishing Christmas as a federal holiday. At the end of the ad, an anonymous female voice saying “There is no God” could easily be mistaken for Hagan’s, even though she was actually a member of the Presbyterian Church and had been a Sunday school teacher.

The Netherlands

Freedom Party MPs: Bullies and Drunks

In 2010/11, many scandals about MPs of the Freedom Party (PVV) surfaced, ranging from such antisocial behaviour as head-butting people in the streets and driving while drunk to urinating in mailboxes. The Institute for Political Participation, an organization very much opposed to the PVV, re-enacted these scenes in an ad for the 2011 provincial elections, urging voters to keep the party as far removed from power as possible.

Job Cohen: “A beach ball floating about on every passing wave” (English subtitles)

Although blatant character attacks tend to be rare in Dutch politics, it appears that the rules of the game are changing. With national elections due in 2010, Labour leader Job Cohen (PvdA) was targeted in a negative ad by Geert Wilders, head of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV). The ad first establishes the devastating effects of Muslim immigrants on Dutch society, and then portrays Cohen as a weakling who has surrendered to Islam. While images are shown of the Labour leader visiting a mosque and amiably drinking tea with Muslims, Wilders’s voice-over scorns him as “a beach ball floating about on every passing wave”.