I have heard it said that politics have always been dirty. And there is no doubt that our political history has been marked by dubious claims, misleading charges and unscrupulous actions.
Political advertising has long been with us, but a new era opened up when television permeated society. Now we are inundated with social media and saturated with telecommunications. The technological evolution provided new channels of political communication, accompanied by new techniques and forms of tactical utilization of the media. Televised news coverage, including debates and events on the campaign trail, is well-established. Television provides the playing field on which the political battles are conducted. And we are seeing the TV=money equation play out once more in the current campaigns.
Negative advertising is evident in the current presidential campaign belligerence. We have candidates with sharp differences and clearly contrasting positions – on climate change, for example. On some issues you can think in terms of how an issue or action might be framed in a 30-second TV spot. Attack ads are designed to exploit people's fears, lowering and manipulating the image voters have of the opponent.
And, of course, television advertising is driven by fund-raising and the outrageous levels of campaign spending.
Two TV political ads from past campaigns exemplify the modern era of attack or negative campaign advertising -- the 1964 "Daisy" spot and the 1988 "Willie Horton" ad. Their commonalities include an emphasis on generating or reinforcing fear, a primary feature of today's attack ads, which seek to frighten voters with the specter of violence, looters, and anarchists -- attributing positions and comments to Joe Biden that he has repeatedly repudiated.
The Daisy spot from the 1964 Lyndon Johnson presidential campaign helped open the way for the focus on strategic TV advertising. That spot, shown only one time on one network, captured considerable attention afterward. It showed a little girl plucking petals from a daisy while a countdown set the stage for a nuclear explosion. Johnson's voice was the Hen heard in the background: "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 love each other, or we must die." The message identified Republican Barry Goldwater as trigger-happy and someone who might lead the nation into nuclear war.
In 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was running far ahead of George H.W. Bus. Bush's media strategists Rogers Ailes (yes, that Roger Ailes) and Lee Atwater thought something dramatic was needed. They believed it was essential to define Dukakis in the most negative way possible. The result was the "Willie Horton-revolving door" ads. Horton had raped a woman in Maryland while he was an escapee from a prison furlough program in Massachusetts where Dukakis was governor. Someone watching the anti-Dukakis attack ads could have thought Dukakis was personally responsible for Horton's actions. The Horton spots succeeded in driving up Dukakis' "negatives" and he never regained the lead.
Another effective example of an attack ad was the "Swift Boat" spot in 2004, aimed at Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. A group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which included some who had served with Kerry in Vietnam and who questioned Kerry's claims about his military record. (Official Navy documents backed Kerry's version.)
In the current campaign, and drawing on his 2016 playbook against Hillary Clinton, President Trump has sought to define Joe Biden as feeble, a sleepy guy living in his basement, prone to verbal miscues, and whose mental fitness is questionable.
To the surprise of many, recent analyses of fund raising show the Biden campaign has a healthy war chest. Biden dominates the paid media landscape (advertising as opposed to news coverage). On broadcast TV last week, the Biden campaign spent $36.5 million, while the Trump campaign only spent about $14.7 million. The Biden campaign had a similar advantage on Facebook, spending $4.2 million, while Trump's team spent $2.4 million. However, it is likely that the Trump coffers will be replenished for a big final push.
Trump is a master of misleading campaign rhetoric, a one-man attack ad. He mixes attacks with self-acclaim. Conspiracy theories constantly find their way into his speeches, dating back to his adamant insistence that former President Barack Obama was not eligible to be president. He has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the lengthy list of falsehoods and his contradictions to his own statements. Trump's unwillingness to recognize the importance of wearing masks ranks among the most costly inaction in our history -- costly in many ways, including a terrible and tragic toll in human lives. It is a case where non-intervention is another form of intervention.
Some of the current campaign ads are crude and crass, although Trump, who relies heavily on revisionist history, insists the ads aimed at him are often based on "fake news." The Trump campaign's most-watched YouTube video used 10 video clips in misleading ways -- isolating quotes and splicing clips. Instead of attack ads, the Biden campaign or supporters should plant billboards and air TV spots with a simple but stark message – the still-rising numbers and their undeniable truth and meaning: Worldwide deaths, 950,500; U.S deaths,199,500; Arkansas deaths 1,181; plus other recent relevant numbers indicative of many more lives dramatically affected.
Meanwhile, Trump will continue his attacks, solidifying his well-deserved reputation for invoking fear – except when he is the one who is fearful of taking responsibility or being held accountable.
Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at [email protected]