Attack Ads Through the Ages

A brief, inherently dirty history, with video reminders of how low they can go.
By Tom Barrett

When Adrian Dix refuses to engage in negative campaigning, he is turning his back on a Canadian tradition older than Confederation. An early biographer of Sir John A. Macdonald wrote of an 1844 election in Kingston that “every editor dipped his pen in gall; every column reeked with libel. Those who had no newspapers issued handbills, that might have fired the fences on which they were posted.”

Politics became more polite over the years. But in the 20th century, television gave politicians a weapon far more powerful than Macdonald’s fiery handbills.

In 1964, the U.S. Democratic party aired what’s become known as the “daisy” ad. The ad, which communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson has called “arguably the most controversial ad in the history of political broadcasting,” played upon fears that Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war.

Designed by media sage Tony Schwartz, the ad showed a small girl standing in a field, pulling petals from a daisy. She counts the petals — “one, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine” — until she is suddenly drowned out by a robotic voice counting down a missile launch: “10, nine, eight…” The camera zooms in on the girl’s eye. A mushroom cloud fills the screen.

President Lyndon Johnson’s voice is heard: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

The spot, which never mentions Goldwater by name, aired only once as a paid ad. But it was shown again and again by the news media.

The 1988 U.S. presidential election appears to have been a watershed in negative campaigning. “Never before in a presidential campaign have televised ads sponsored by a major party candidate lied so blatantly as in the campaign of 1988,” Jamieson wrote.

One of the most famous ads from that campaign showed a procession of scary-looking prisoners shuffling through a revolving door, as a voice-over claimed that, as governor of Massachusetts, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis turned killers loose to kidnap and rape.

The ad was, to be charitable, misleading, but it helped sink Dukakis.

In recent years, Canadian campaigners have done their best to catch up to the Americans. Probably the best-known Canadian attack ad was the Jean Chrétien “face” spot, run by the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. Over a montage of shots that played up Chrétien’s facial paralysis, the ad suggested that Canadians may not want someone who looks like that representing us on the international stage.

The ad was pulled and is generally thought to have backfired, although some Tories insist that it was working.

The Liberals had some success with their own negative ads over the next few campaigns. But the Stephen Harper Conservatives took negative campaigning to a new level in 2007, when they began running attack ads aimed at the Liberals between elections — something that Canadian parties had rarely done before.

Almost as soon as Stéphane Dion was chosen Liberal leader, the Conservatives began a 20-month attack based on the idea that Dion was “not a leader” and “not worth the risk.”

The anti-Dion campaign included a website that featured a “pooping puffin” that crapped on Dion’s shoulder. It was pulled and Harper was forced to apologize.

After Dion flamed out in the 2008 election, the Conservatives used the same tactics against his successor, Michael Ignatieff. The new Liberal leader was “just visiting” Canada, the Conservatives informed us. He was a “citizen of the world,” who moved in “elite circles.” Not the kind of guy you’d meet at Tim Hortons.

A second wave of ads talked of Ignatieff’s “reckless coalition” and claimed he “didn’t come back for you.” Like Dion, Ignatieff was unable to tell a story that effectively countered the ads.

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