Like a coin, an effective political ad strategy will have two sides. Parties will tell voters why they should support them and their leader, but they also need to say why they should not support their opponents. Successful negative or contrast ads will use evidence to build on pre-conceived beliefs that the public already has about a party or a candidate. Here are ten examples of very effective negative political ads.
In the 2004 election campaign, Stephen Harper was unknown to many Canadians. This Liberal ad pointed out the different approach Harper had on hot button issues like the Iraq war, gun control and climate change and helped the Liberals win a minority government despite being weighed down by the Sponsorship Affair.
9. Just Visiting
Michael Ignatieff became Liberal leader shortly after the 2008 election and, as with his predecessor Stéphane Dion, the Conservative party wasted no time in issuing a suite of ads attempting to define him. The subsequent election saw the Liberals suffer their greatest defeat ever, electing only 34 seats and Harper scoring his first majority.
In the 2011 campaign, the NDP was trying to convince Quebecers that the situation in Ottawa was not moving ahead for them and that it was futile to keep supporting the Bloc Québécois. A hamster in its wheel became the perfect metaphor.
7. Background Checks
(Kander, Missouri – U.S. Senate, 2016)
In 2016, Jason Kander, Senate candidate for the Democrats in Missouri, was accused by his opponent of not supporting rights for gun owners. Kander, an army veteran who had served in Afghanistan and who could literally assemble his rifle blindfolded, fired back with this very effective ad.
6. Failed Leadership
In 1968, Americans were weary over a seemingly endless war in Vietnam as well as violence and civil strife at home in the U.S. This long form ad from the Nixon campaign tapped into this anxiety and reached out to speak directly to the silent majority building to an optimistic note at the end.
5. The Bear
Sometimes the preconceived fear that that an ad is warning against is not about an opponent but an external threat such as this memorable Reagan ad from 1984 where a bear stands in for the threat posed by the Soviet Union – or whatever other fear the viewer believes they need protection from.
4. “Stephen, do I look scared to you?”
How do you counteract a widespread effort by your opponent to distort your policy, especially when it relates to a critical voting demographic such as seniors? Fortunately for the Liberals in 2015, they were able to dismiss Conservative claims that they planned to eliminate favorable tax treatment for senior couples by enlisting the well-respected nonagenarian former Mississauga mayor, Hazel McCallion, to star in their ad.
The 1988 Canadian general election quickly became a referendum on the Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Mulroney government. Liberals capitalized on the fears that many had on losing more sovereignty to the U.S. and produced a memorable ad in which the border was literally erased. While the Progressive Conservatives won the election (as the NDP and Liberals split the anti-agreement votes) the Liberals did manage to double their seat count in Parliament.
2. Revolving Door
When your negative ad is so well known that it gets parodied in The Simpsons, as was the case for the Bush campaign’s attack on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’ record on corrections, then you know it is well engrained in the public consciousness.
In the 1964 U.S. presidential election, Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater, one of the most hawkish candidates ever on defence issues, who had suggested the use of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam war, if necessary. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign responding my producing what is widely seen as one of the most devastating negative ads ever. “Daisy” ran only once (on September 7, 1964) but had a wide-ranging impact and helped Johnson win the biggest landslide in over 140 years.