As many Americans realize around Election Day, political campaigns are not always pretty. Candidates for various offices may spend thousands of dollars creating television ads that either spotlight their own goals and achievements or cast serious doubts on their opponents' qualifications or abilities. When a political candidate openly criticizes his or her opponent's character or record, the result is called a negative campaign ad. A negative campaign ad can be an effective way to challenge an opponent's qualifications, but it can also come across as mean spirited or vindictive if not handled correctly.
Many political candidates start their election runs with the idea of maintaining a positive campaign. Early campaign ads are often filled with scenes depicting strong family values, a humble upbringing or a reminder of previous political successes. However, these idyllic images alone rarely make a noticeable dent in the polls. In order to sway undecided voters, a candidate may decide to create his or her first negative campaign ad, especially when running against a popular incumbent.
In a negative campaign ad, any aspect of an opponent's public life can be fair game. An opponent may claim to support a tax cut, for example, but his voting record may show a number of previous votes in favor of tax hikes. Associations with controversial politicians could also be included in a negative campaign ad. Some candidates use a negative campaign ad to expose an opponent's major sources of funding, such as a trial lawyers' association or large oil companies. A negative ad campaign works best when it focuses on proven political failures with unimpeachable sources.
One area a negative campaign ad should always avoid is the opponent's personal life. Voters may tolerate attacks on each other's public records, but personal attacks on an opponent's private life are another matter. Subjects such as alcoholism, divorce and other personal problems are rarely, if ever, mentioned in a legitimate negative campaign ad. Whenever a political campaign is reduced to name-calling and mudslinging, voters often consider a third candidate or refrain from voting altogether.
Even candidates who pledge not to run a single negative campaign ad may feel pressured to respond to their opponent's allegations. Snippets of a candidate's own negative campaign ad may be used by his or her opponent to refute the charges. In politics, the first candidate to issue a negative campaign ad is often at an early disadvantage. Opponents can claim the moral 'high ground' by resisting the temptation to launch a negative attack so quickly. Almost inevitably, however, the subject of a negative campaign ad will launch a counterstrike as soon as possible.
Quite a few voters believe that the negative campaign ad has lost much of its effectiveness. Candidates who go negative too often can appear arrogant or slick. Their opponents may actually gain votes from sympathetic voters weary of the relentless attacks. It is vitally important that any information used in a negative campaign ad be verifiable by an outside source and relate to the opponent's political or public life, rather than his or her personal life.