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Presidential attack ads: A history

A Ted Cruz attack ad against Hillary Clinton replicating a scene from Office Space
A Ted Cruz attack ad against Hillary Clinton replicating a scene from Office Space
(c) Ted Cruz Campaign 2016

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With just one day until the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucus, presidential candidates on both sides of the political aisle have been shelling out big bucks on TV ads. 

Some have kept things positive, touting what a candidate could achieve if elected, but many are produced with one goal in mind: to smear the competition.

Attack ads have long been a part of the American political process.

UCLA political science and communications professor, Lynn Vavreck, joined Take Two for a look back at some of the most effective campaign ads of presidential elections past.

Platform Double-Talk (1952)

Election: Adlai Stevenson vs. Dwight D Eisenhower

Key features: wisecracking cartoons, a double-headed, flip-flopping GOP candidate

Vavreck says, don’t let the quaint tone of the ad fool you: in the 50s, cartoons were a very effective way to lampoon the competition in a presidential race.

“It’s tempting to think that because these are cartoons or because they are not quite so biting in today’s context, the early attacks weren’t harsh. There were plenty of harsh attacks, even in the 50s and 60s,” Vavreck says. “Attack ads deliver twice the information as promotional ads because they contrast one candidate’s position against another’s.”

Willie Horton (1988)

Election: George H Bush vs. Michael Dukakis

Key features: Grave voiceover, infamous mugshot of a convicted murderer, escalates quickly

What the ad lacks in visual stimuli, it more than makes up for in content. The “Horton” ad would go on to change the tone of the 1988 election, handing the race to Bush. Vavreck says that's because this ad set the stage for the “Revolving Door” ad, which also relied heavily on images of imprisoned black males.

“All of the sudden, [we were] talking about race. 'Is the ad priming race?' Mr. Horton is a black man. 'Is there a connection there that the Republicans are trying to draw between crime and race?' It changes the conversation of that election for some time,” Vavreck says.

Speaking about the ad, Bush strategist Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Windsurfing (2004)

Election: George W Bush vs. John Kerry

Key features: John Kerry in swim shorts, John Kerry windsurfing, Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube.”

This ad is especially effective because the ad maker found a way to link Bush rival John Kerry to something that most people already thought about him at the time: that he was rich and out of touch. Footage of Kerry windsurfing made this an easy point to drive home.

“So then, you put that music behind it and the boat becomes the dancer, and there you have the ballet,” Vavreck says.

It feels good to be a Clinton (2016)

Election: Primaries

Key features: Throwback to “Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta,” Throwback to “Office Space,” A (much heavier) Hillary Clinton doppelganger

The recent Ted Cruz ad was released a week ahead of the South Carolina and Nevada primaries. Lynn Vavreck says it’s one of the best attack ads she’s seen in a long time.

“[That's] because it goes to the core of what people think about Hillary Clinton. It’s not inventing a myth about her — it is taking the reality and trying to deliver that in a compelling way,” Vavreck says. “When I saw it the first time, I was surprised. It does do what it intends to do.”

Will voters ever tire of political attack ads? UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck says it's not likely.

“When we ask people, ‘what do you think of these attack ads?’ [They say] ‘Oh, I hate them. I wish they would stop.’ But they are effective, and they do shape people’s attitudes and thoughts about candidates.”