The Art of the Negative Ad

1. The Most Powerful Ads Exploit an Opponent’s Weakness That People Already Know About.

Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, seguing from a girl counting flower petals to a nuclear countdown, closed with the tagline, delivered with a deadly-serious voice, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” “The ‘Daisy’ ad was built on a narrative that was out there: Do we really trust Barry Goldwater’s finger on the button?” says Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. “And that ad became symbolic of that argument.”

2. Lead Voters, Don’t Yell at Them.

“You have to remember this box is in someone’s living room,” advises GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. “You don’t shout at people in their own house, you sit on the couch next to them, take them by the hand, and lead them on a journey.”

3. The Most Effective Campaign Is a Values Campaign.

“By values, I don’t mean moral values,” says Dowd, “but ‘strong leader’ or ‘compassionate.’ You drive it over and over and over, and you talk about everything—the economy, national security—through the prism of that broad, big narrative.” In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign made virtues of qualities like “youth” and “hope” by casting Hillary Clinton and John ­McCain as cynical has-beens. In the ad “Still,” Obama’s team links McCain’s inability to send e-mail with his cluelessness about the economy. The narrative locks into place. “After one president who was out of touch,” the narrator intones over a picture of McCain with President Bush, “we just can’t afford more of the same.”

4. The Weaker Your Candidate, the More Negative Your Campaign.

Maryland governor Parris Glendening had barely won election in 1994, and four years later he faced a rematch with Republican Ellen Sauerbrey—only this time he was losing by ten points. “We did about five or six ads about her votes on issues,” remembers Democratic media consultant Tad Devine, “and the final issue we did was civil rights. She’d opposed a fair-housing law and the state civil-rights act, and we took her opposition to public funding of abortions and said, ‘Sauerbrey so strongly opposes a woman’s right to choose that she voted to deny abortions to poor women even in cases of rape and incest—the real Ellen Sauerbrey, a civil-rights record to be ashamed of.’ It was a tough bit of business, but we were never going to sell Parris Glendening.”

5. When One Claim Won’t Stick, Accumulate the Negatives.

After the 1988 Democratic convention, Michael Dukakis was leading his opponent, George H.W. Bush, by 17 points. “Their research showed them that if you made an argument against Dukakis that he was bad on the environment or soft on defense or soft on crime, it didn’t necessarily take away from him,” Devine says. “But when you took all those arguments against Dukakis and you loaded them up one after another, there was an accumulation of negative that really hurt him.” Notable in the fusillade: the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which accused Dukakis of enabling an assault and a rape.

6. When Short on Cash, Make an Ad Ridiculous Enough for the Internet.

In the 2010 California Republican Senate primary, politico Tom Campbell mounted an unexpected challenge to former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. To beat back Campbell while conserving funds for a tough general-election fight, Fiorina’s media consultant Fred Davis opted for a cheap, easy, and bizarre solution: a garish attack ad with ominous narration, sinister music, and a man dressed as a “demon sheep.” “That ad never went on the air,” Davis says. “It was a web video, so it had to have something to make it go viral. We went with camp.”

7. In Narration, Gender Matters.

Says Castellanos: “Viewers perceive male narrators as stronger and more credible. Female narrators are less authoritative but more empathetic. Deciding when to use one or the other is part science, part art.”

8. Turn Your Opponent’s Attacks Back Against Him.

John Edwards was gaining on Republican incumbent Lauch Faircloth in his 1998 Senate race and trumpeting his endorsement by North Carolina’s police benevolent association. Desperate, Faircloth hit back. “His people did an ad where they got a bunch of cops—real Smokies,” Devine remembers. “And one of them looks into the camera and says, ‘When you hear that liberal trial lawyer John Edwards say that we’ve endorsed him, that is bull!’ We said, ‘Oh, man, if that “bull” argument succeeds, we’re dead.’ So we made a response ad that started with that cop saying ‘Bull.’ And we said, ‘You’ve got that right. Lauch Faircloth’s negative ads are just a lot of bull. Edwards: Endorsed by 4,000 police. Faircloth: Endorsed by a few dozen. Faircloth’s ads are’—and then we brought the ‘bull’ guy back—‘bull!’ ” They’d created an absolutely devastating negative ad, and it blew up in their face.

9. Drums Make a Message Pop.

Working for the pro-Huntsman Our Destiny super-pac, Fred Davis realized he needed a powerful effect to drive home his message that the former Utah governor was a true conservative. “After we shot that ad, I thought the graphic information about Jon didn’t stand out enough,” Davis says. “So I put some drums in there, and they were the thing that stood out. If you want something to really pop, drums are a good way to go.”

10. The Best Weakness to Exploit Is a Contrast to Your Candidate’s Strength.

Showing footage of John Kerry tacking back and forth in Nantucket, 2004’s windsurfing ad provided comic punctuation to a theme the Bush campaign had been driving from the beginning: Kerry was a flip-flopper who changed his positions based on political expediency. “Bush’s greatest strength was he was a strong, decisive leader—you may not have agreed with him, but you knew where he stood,” says Dowd. “The exact opposite of that is a flip-flopper.”

11. Make Your Opponent Look Good.

It might be tempting to show your political adversary at his or her most unflattering, but it’s a cheap trick that will backfire. “You want to use the best photo of your opponent you can,” says Davis. “If you don’t, people aren’t going to find your message credible.”

12. Target Your Ads at People You Can Convince.

Entering September 1994, a little-known Massachusetts Senate candidate named Mitt Romney looked to be on his way to unseating Teddy Kennedy. Kennedy’s team fought back by exposing Romney’s business record with a series of television spots featuring striking workers at a Bain Capital–owned plant. Female employees dominated the ads. “It’s not a coincidence,” says Devine. “They were the target voter. Non-college-educated women were very soft in that election, and there were a lot of them.”

The Art of the Negative Ad