The Positives of Negativity

by Meg Ryan

Throughout the course of any general election, there is one component that never varies regardless of the cycle, and that is the public’s stance on negative political advertisements. Without exception, each election cycle creates a climate of constant hand wringing and denunciation about how horrible attack advertisements are. I posit that negativity is just a much a part of democracy as the democratic process itself. Negative political advertisements are frequently condemned for being malicious and unfair; however, negative advertisements serve an important role in this country’s democracy. Negative ads inform voters, increase accountability among candidates, and contain more valuable information than their positive counterparts. By discussing the rhetorical tactics used, and by examining several notorious presidential campaign ads throughout the decades, I will determine the purpose and validity of negative political ads. The campaigns scrutinized will include: the 1964 Johnson v. Goldwater campaign, the 1988 Bush (H. W.) v. Dukakis, and the 2004 Bush (W.) v. Kerry campaign. Negativity has played a vital function in the preservation of freedom in the United States since the birth of the nation and must be defended.

A fundamental understanding of the basis of rhetoric is essential before discussing the topic of negativity. This is because the art of persuasion and the tools it incorporates (when done correctly) are so subtle, that they often go unnoticed to the uneducated spectator. Being aware of the devices of rhetoric make for a more conscious and conversant listener. Rhetoric is the art of using language and symbols to persuade or influence. This theory is trying to explain how language can be used and manipulated to influence audiences with certain messages. In general, the theory breaks down the various components of persuasion and examines how each element can be molded to create a stronger argument or message. It also inspects how the formation of each element is both dependent on the other facets and has a combined effect on the outcome of the entire message. The validity and success of any message is a product of the quality of substance in each mechanism that makes up the argument. The theory studies how people use persuasion in order to reach a greater understanding about the society they live in.

One important theorist in rhetoric was Aristotle. Aristotle created the classical definition of rhetoric which has inspired subsequent theories.  Aristotle defined the use of rhetoric as the capability to perceive the opportunity for persuasion in any particular situation (Rapp). That being said, it is not so much that rhetoric when used effectively will be able to persuade a person no matter what the circumstances, but rather, rhetoric, no matter how strong the persuasion, will not be able to convince everyone. Aristotle believed that rhetoric “is a neutral tool that can be used by persons of virtuous or depraved character” (Rapp). In other words, rhetoric is inherently neither good nor bad, but rather, the person or rhetorician determines the nature of the message they are trying to persuade others with.

Aristotle had five categories for the key components of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Invention is the content or substance of a message. Arrangement is how to organize the content of the message. Style is expressing the content of the message in a fashion or manner that is effective. Memory is how the message content is learned or accessed. Delivery is how the message is presented to an audience. All arguments must be substantiated using proof, according to Aristotle, and proof comes in one of two forms. The first is inartistic, which is proof that the persuader can use as evidence, but cannot manipulate (O’Donnell 140). For example, if a person is trying to prove a point about Chicago weather, they can refer to the current weather at that time, but they have no control over the climate itself. The other form of proof is artistic, which is evidence that the persuader can invent or influence, basically the construction of logical reasoning itself (O’Donnell 140). Aristotle claimed that in rhetoric there are three types of proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos revolves around the credibility and character of the persuader, relying primarily on the integrity and reputation of the speaker (Crewell). Pathos incorporates emotional connections in the persuasion itself, as well as the emotional interest of the audience (Crewell). Finally, logos focus on the use of reasoning for the audience (Crewell). Logos proof is derived from the use of examples or through enthymemes. Enthymemes are the active process involved in rhetoric that allows the speaker and audience to collectively come to a conclusion through shared logic (O’Donnell 141). Enthymemes complete the process by allowing the audience to determine the success of the message being presented.

With a rudimentary understanding of rhetoric, it is now possible to examine how persuasion applies to political advertisements. When purchasing a car, how might one go about making a decision? Would they only pay attention to what the car dealership has to say about the car, which would only tell the positive traits of the vehicle? Or would they look for outside information about the car–consumer review magazines, personal stories, or safety ratings–to find out any potential negative traits? Hopefully, most Americans would go with the latter. The same principles apply to candidates. The candidates, much like the dealership, are only going to provide the positive aspects of their campaign. The negatives have to come from some outside source. Every choice I make, be it what car I buy, college I attend, or candidate I elect, needs to be evaluated through the positive and negative aspects. So I need both kinds of information to make a decision.

Somewhere in the middle of these competing parties, people stop playing nicely and start attacking one another. Negativity occurs between candidates because there are partisan disagreements in this country. Despite the current notion that presidential candidates are all the same and blur party lines, there is a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. These partisan differences lead to discrepancy, which then leads ultimately to negativity. Since the 1960s, there has been an upward trend observed in the amount of negative political advertisements used during any given election cycle (Geer, “In Defense” 36). This further justifies why society needs to understand negative advertising, since it is becoming all the more commonplace in society.

The 1964 presidential race was a brutal battle between incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. During this election cycle, there were many important issues at stake, so to speak, but the most pressing issue on everyone’s mind was nuclear war. The 1960s were a turbulent time for America. The country was at the height of the Cold War, in a space and arms race between communist Russia. The United States had already experienced enough nuclear scares since the beginning of the sixties, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In 1961, newly elected president John F. Kennedy planned and funded the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s tentative communist government by Cuban exiles. The exiles were quickly defeated, as the United States government failed to provide the CIA and military backup they had promised, an event now known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (Van Hoesel). This lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year, where US spy photos revealed the nuclear missile in Cuba, supplied by the Soviet Union. Kennedy, realizing how dangerous the situation was, opted out of direct military confrontation (i.e. another invasion) and instead imposed a strong naval blockade on Cuba. After a set of intense negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the USSR agreed to remove their nuclear arms in Cuba in exchange for a non-invasion agreement and removal of US nuclear arms from Turkey (Van Hoesel). Though the Cuban Missile Crisis had a peaceful resolution, the American people would never forget the fear and apprehension that transpired in October of 1962, a concern that would become a major issue in the following presidential elections.

The Daisy ad (or Peace Little Girl ad) run by Lyndon B. Johnson during the 1964 presidential race is the most notorious example of negative political advertisement to date. This infamous spot opens with a small girl in the middle of a field, counting peddles of a daisy she is holding as she plucks them off. When the girl reaches the number nine, a menacing voice counts down from ten, as the camera zooms in on the child’s face, then cuts to a nuclear explosion. This blast is accompanied by Lyndon Johnson saying, “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 either love each other, or we must die.” Another, more seductive voice then says, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home” ( This spot only aired once, during the NBC Movie of the Week on September 7, 1964, but its impact on the election was enormous.

Political advertisements, whether negative or positive, typically all have one thing in common: the use of rhetorical tools, such as logos to provide evidence to support the points stated in these ads, and to verify the merits of the candidate’s claims or indiscretions. The interesting thing about the Daisy ad – what separates it most from all previous negative political ads, and most of those that followed – is that it did not contain a single fact or piece of evidence to backup any point it was trying to make. It did not manipulate quotations, statistics, or documentation that negatively reflected the opponent in anyway. Likewise, it did not once mention the opponent, Barry Goldwater, at all during the minute long spot.

Instead of a using a direct attack against Goldwater, using personal quotes or calling into question the senator’s stance on an issue, for example, the advertisement used an indirect, implied attack to get the message across effectively. In order for the advertisement to get its message across, the audience had to have prior knowledge of Goldwater’s past remarks about nuclear warfare (Geer, “In Defense” 57). Goldwater had joked about dropping an atomic bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin at one point, and as a Republican, he had a partisan tendency to be more prone to arms use than a Democrat (Geer, Personal Interview). If the audience saw Goldwater and nuclear bombs, it was because they had that background information and made the connection come to life.

Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s Republican opponent in the election, and self-assumedly target of the attack, responded furiously, “The homes of America are horrified and the intelligence of Americans is insulted by weird television advertising by which this administration threatens the end of the world unless all-wise Lyndon is given the nation for his very own” (Geer, “In Defense” 3). Barry Goldwater’s response to the ad in such a hostile way, basically claiming the advertisement was in fact against him, was exactly what the Johnson campaign was hoping for. By stating that this ad was about him, Goldwater effectively connected the dots for the rest of America who had seen the ad, but had not known his stance on nuclear war, or had not picked up on the implied message of the ad. The ad was no longer implied; Goldwater provided all the evidence to complete a negative attack ad against him.

The increased attention to this ad, an ad that only aired one time, coupled with the fact that the news media and Goldwater himself enlarged the ad’s airtime and potential viewing audience. Now, people who had not seen the ad or were unaware of Goldwater’s stance on the issue were being reached when they otherwise would have been oblivious to the whole affair. If instead, Barry Goldwater had responded to the Daisy Spot by saying, “This advertisement addresses a very important issue, and I want to pay for half of its airtime for the rest of the campaign,” it would have potentially killed the issue. This is because the advertisement never mentioned his name, but when Goldwater decided to cry foul, it made him look guilty. The image Johnson produced of Goldwater being a warmongering, loose cannon Republican paid off for the Democratic Party in the long run, since LBJ won by a landslide.

Nineteen eighty-eight was an uncertain year for the future of the United States. The United States economy was recovering from the years of Reaganomics, the laissez-fair economic policy that benefited big business and the upper class, but put the rest of the United States at a disadvantage (Rothbard). Reaganomics took money away from domestic welfare programs, such as health care and homeless shelters, and redirected it towards foreign defense. This caused a reemergence of Cold War fears, mainly, the nuclear arms race against Soviet Russia (which was honestly a red herring, considering the fact that Russia’s economy was completely imploding by the mid-1980s) so foreign defense and fiscal responsibility were key issues when determining who would run the country after Reagan left office. Voters during this period were complex conservatives, basically middle of the road politically, so the campaigns had to appeal to these constituents with comprehensive and partisan free platforms in order to attract supporters.

The 1988 presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis marked the dawn of a new era viciousness associated with negative campaigning; “observers, pundits, and scholars often view the electoral duel between George Bush and Michael Dukakis as the low point in modern presidential campaigns” (Geer, “In Defense” 111). However, when the negative media produced during this election cycle is examined closely, it can be seen that negative ads in the 1988 campaign were not radically destructive or in any way indicative of a lack of morality. In fact, the ads produced during this campaign followed the same patterns as the campaigns that came before it.

Another common rhetorical tool of political advertisements is using inartistic evidence and logic based appeals to highlight an opponent’s shortcomings or deficiencies, or call to attention fallacies in a candidate’s stances. This is seen most notably in the Tank Ad run by the George H. W. Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. The ad showed footage of governor Dukakis driving around in an M1 Abrams tank, with the suitable attire, waving to the camera and bystanders. As Dukakis drove back and forth, the ad listed all the defense programs Dukakis actually opposed:

ANNOUNCER: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed. He opposed new aircraft carriers. He opposed anti-satellite weapons. He opposed four missile systems, including the Pershing II missile deployment. Dukakis opposed the stealth bomber, a ground emergency warning system against nuclear testing. He even criticized our rescue mission to Grenada and our strike on Libya. And now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can’t afford that risk (

His campaign advisors created the original footage of Dukakis in the tank, wanting to create a military friendly persona for the Democratic candidate (Geer, “In Defense” 4). However, this footage was quickly apprehended by the Republicans and manipulated accordingly; the advertisement’s creator, Greg Stevens, edited in the sound of gears grinding to the spot to imply that Dukakis could not even operate a tank correctly (Geer, “In Defense” 4). Though this advertisement did not provide any information regarding Bush’s stance on defense, or how it differed from Dukakis, it did bring to light important aspects of Dukakis’ policy. As mentioned before, this spot used logic based appeals to persuade its audience; for example, it stated all the defense systems Dukakis was against, then said, “and now he wants to be our commander in chief. America can’t afford that risk” ( The list of defense systems Dukakis opposed also counts as inartistic proof, since that record could not be manipulated. It made the public known that Dukakis was not as strong on defense as he claimed to be, an allegation that needed to be addressed since the Cold War and arms race were still very real issues during the 1988 election cycle. Likewise, Dukakis’ misrepresentation on defense policies was something that the public needed to be aware of and have corrected so they fully understood the candidate.

While this advertisement was not representing a new low point in campaign advertisement, it did spawn a new type of negative advertisement – ads that were now focusing on negativity and attack advertising itself. Before the contest in 1988, opposition media was not a concern in any presidential campaign (Geer, “In Defense” 116). A very disgruntled Dukakis aired a response to the Tank ad:

I’m fed up with it. Haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of public life. George Bush’s negative TV ads, distorting my record, full of lies and he knows it. I’m on the record for the very weapons systems his ads say I’m against. I want to build a strong defense. I’m sure he wants to build a strong defense. So this isn’t about defense issues. It’s about dragging the truth into the gutter. (

While Dukakis airing counterattack ads may initially explain why the 1988 election was a new low point in presidential campaigning, it actually proves the opposite. Though candidates had complained about negative advertising before Dukakis, Dukakis was the first to actually buy airtime and air an attack ad against another attack ad. This is important because it created a new sense of accountability for each candidate. Dukakis was forced to defend his stance, provide evidence of his record, and clarify why he would be the better candidate than Bush.

The Tank spot was also criticized by Dukakis and the public for its use of exaggeration when explaining Dukakis’ stance on defense. Exaggeration is a common criticism of negative campaigns; however, there is a misunderstanding that negative ads make use of excessive exaggeration. While it is true, negative advertisements do indeed embellish the truth, positive appeals make just as many exaggerations. In a positive spot ran later in 1988 by the Dukakis campaign, the governor tried to appeal to fiscally conservative voters as he highlighted the fact that, as governor of Massachusetts, he had balanced the state budget ten times (Geer, “In Defense” 5). Though this fact is true, the ad failed to mention that balancing the state’s budget was constitutionally mandated. Anyone could have been governor and the budget would still have been balanced. Dukakis mislead the public by implying that he was fiscally conservative, a trait important for the recovering economy and during a time of complex conservatism.

Yet this ad and positive ads in general are not examined as closely as negative ads since people often assess the substance of negative advertisements strictly and presume that positive advertisements are entirely truthful and precise (Geer, “In Defense” 5). In both instances the claims were misleading; Dukakis was not weak on defense, nor was he fiscally conservative. Here is the problem: propaganda, by its very nature, exaggerates. Candidates want to build a strong case for their campaign on both spectrums, so they exaggerate the positives – Dukakis balancing Massachusetts budget – and the negatives – Bush exaggerating Dukakis’ stance on defense. Though both ads were misleading, the positive spot was accepted, while the negative ad was scrutinized and dissected. Eventually, the Tank ad was the spot that resonated most with the voters on Election Day. Though the Bush – Dukakis race was predicted to be a close one, “Dukakis departed from Atlanta 17 points ahead of George Bush in the polls” election day proved these predictions false; “once the Republicans had their moment on the tube, Bush caught up and ultimately left Dukakis behind in the dust” (Tyler 1).

The last campaign examined in this paper, the 2004 Bush – Kerry campaign, poses an interesting dilemma when trying to research it. For one, historical perspective is next to impossible to gauge, as even though President Obama is in the White House, we’re still very much the tail end George W. Bush era; and the world is still feeling the effects of his first term as president, not to mention his second. Likewise, it is not apparent how the results of the 2004 election have affected subsequent elections, as the 2008 primaries and general election are still being studied, and the country is still wavering on their opinion of the new commander in chief versus the old. Finally, there simply is not the chronological cushion that allows for detailed analysis and explanation of voting trends, the election results themselves, and the long-term effects of the election. Basically, forty-four years of hindsight garner a more accurate assessment of the Johnson versus Goldwater campaign, and all of its subsequent effects, whereas five years after Bush v. Kerry still finds most of America in shock. That being said, the following section will be considerably shorter than the previous campaigns, and will focus more on why the negativity occurred, and not the effects of the campaign.

The most negative presidential campaign run in the past forty-four years was the Bush – Kerry contest in 2004, as 49% of the advertisements produced during this cycle were attacks (Geer, “In Defense” 36). There are several reasons why this campaign became so negative. One, the parties were greatly polarized. Polarized parties breed more negativity because there are more partisan disagreements among candidates and the electorate. Even though Bush ran his campaign around the notion of being a unifier, not a divider, he ran an extremely negative race. More than 50% of the advertisements produced by his campaign were attacks against Kerry (Geer, “In Defense” 153). There were significant differences between Bush and Kerry on numerous issues, and Bush wanted to make those differences known to the public. The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans, this polarization between parties, provides the opportunity for negativity.

Two, it was a close race (Geer, “In Defense” 41). Close races breed more negativity because there is more competition between states and delegates. The last reason for the increase in negativity in the 2004 campaign is that both the candidates were filthy rich (not Perot rich, but still filthy rich). Money increases the amount of negativity, because rich candidates can afford to air spots in several media markets multiple times, and they can also afford to create more ads geared towards specific audiences, and air those nonstop. It is worth mentioning that though 2004 is regarded as the most negative campaign in recent times, there was still a fifty-fifty split between positive and negative advertisements produced during the election (Geer, “Personal Interview”).

The most effective rhetorical arguments are the ones that incorporate all three of the forms of proof (Crewell). The opposition media produced by the Bush campaign during 2004 was certain to integrate ethos, logos, and pathos into each advertisement. The Windsurfing spot included emotional appeals by playing at the notion of Kerry being a flip-flopper, a term that concerned the audience since they wanted a stable leader during a time of war. It also diminished the credibility of Kerry by showing his sporadic voting record, and integrated logical arguments by laying out Kerry’s stance, and questioning his commitment.

The central concern in this campaign was the operations, occupation, and consequences of the Iraq war. The Iraq war overshadowed all other domestic and international concerns in the election, and the majority of advertisements produced during this cycle mentioned the Iraq war in one form or another. “President Bush’s ads presented him as a steady commander in chief during dangerous times, while Senator Kerry’s ads argued that the Democratic challenger is more in touch with the daily needs of the ordinary voter” ( The Bush campaign found itself in an unseen predicament, the public was not responding in the least to the positive advertisements the party ran. This is because Bush was the incumbent candidate, and the public had already decided how they felt about George Bush, and no new positive appeal would change their opinions (Geer, “Personal Interview”). The Bush campaign realized that there was no way to move the president’s approval ratings up, but they could move Senator Kerry’s numbers down, so they turned the campaign negative. One such ad created to keep Kerry’s ratings down was the Windsurfing Ad. In this spot, John Kerry glides back and forth on a windsurfer, while the narrator listed the various inconsistencies in the senators voting record.

NARRATOR: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again. He bragged about voting for the eighty-seven billion to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform and now opposes it. He claims he’s against increasing Medicare premiums but voted five times to do so. John Kerry: whichever way the wind blows. (

This advertisement was produced in order to accentuate John Kerry’s reputation as a “flip-flopper,” a term now almost synonymous with the senator to this day. It used Kerry’s strongest quality, his “thirty-two years of votes and public pronouncements” against him by uncovering enormous contradictions in his voting record (Geer, “In Defense” 82).  It provided specific, researched documentation, and laid out all the facts for the viewers to see. This also raised doubts on whether Kerry’s current platform could be trusted, since he had such a long history of changing his mind, and if he was capable to lead a country down a stable track during a time of war. This message must have struck a cord with American voters, as they reelected Bush (narrowly, very, very narrowly) for a second term.

There is one advertisement that might stand out as a glaring omission to the 2004 contest: the Swift Boat advertisement aired against Kerry. This advertisement was run by a 527 group, Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, not the Bush campaign, and opens up a whole new proverbial, can of worms. 527 plays an ever increasing, critical role in the campaigning process, but their significance and influence extend far past the scope of this paper, and would better be examined in a research paper (or book) of their own.

Negative television advertisements have played a pivotal role in presidential politics since 1964. In each of the examined campaigns, the negative ads produced educated the public, increased candidate accountability, and continually promoted the democratic process. There is a joke among political media wonks that the only difference between negative and positive ads is that negative ads have fact in them (Geer, “Personal Interview”). While this may seem counterfactual on its face, after researching and comparing presidential media, I believe this statement is true. After reviewing and discussing presidential campaigns with Professor John Geer, there are several important trends that further justify negativity’s importance in political media, and the supremacy of negative advertisements over positive advertisements.

First, negative ads are more about issues than positive ads – issues such as education, health care, foreign policy – and we (the voting public) want campaigns to be about issues. Also, negative advertisements tend to be more specific than positive ads. If a candidate states in an advertisement that they are strong on defense that provides the voting public with no real information. What candidate is going to say that they are weak on defense? However, when a candidate runs a spot against another candidate, it forces the opposition to be specific and direct; for example, the Tank ad listed all the defense programs Dukakis opposed. Being more specific makes points stronger, and explains why something is. Finally, negative advertisements tend to be more about key issues (key issues meaning what the public finds important during that campaign) than positive ads, such as the Daisy ad addressing the topic of nuclear weapons. Whatever issues the American public finds most pressing during an election, they are more likely to be discussed in negative advertisements than positive advertisements. All of these factors ultimately result in greater responsibility among candidates, and enlighten the public.

As seen in this paper, negativity has been a part of this countries foundation since the day a group of irritated, slightly inebriated colonists decided to form a Continental Congress and declare that “all men are created equal.” Fast forward to 2011, and all of the sudden, Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on how to run the country seems like a bad thing. Democracy requires negativity; leaders need to be held accountable and the public needs to be able to criticize those in power. This country has survived and prospered on the parties going back and forth and raising doubts about each other. Disagreement is the basis for democracy and doing away with negativity would make us certainly far less democratic.

Meg graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia College Chicago in May of 2009. She has degrees in Writing and Producing Television, and Political Science. She is currently producing a sketch comedy web series for teenagers, but one day hopes to work in political media.

Works Cited

Crewell, Dustin. “The Art of Rhetoric: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Home Page. 11 Mar. 2009 <>.

Geer, John G. In Defense of Negativity. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago P, 2006.

Geer, John G. Telephone interview. 15 Mar. 2009

Kerbel, Matthew. Remote & Controlled: Media Politics in a Cynical Age. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview P, 1998.

Lavin, Frank. “See Spots Run: Old TV Campaign Ads, Now on the Web. ” Wall Street Journal  [New York, N.Y.] 3  Aug. 2004, Eastern edition: D.8

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007.

Rapp, Christof. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric ().” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 11 Mar. 2009 <>.

Rothbard, Murray N. “The Myths of Reaganomics.” Ludwig von Mises Institute – Homepage. 9 June 2004. Mises Institute. 13 May 2009 <>.

The Living Room Candidate. 06 Feb. 2009 <>.

Tyler, Gus. “How the Democrats are Different.” New Leader os 75 (1992):  1-3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, IL. 7 Feb 2009.

Van Hoesel, Frans. “Cold War.” Cold War. Library of Congress’s Soviet Archives. 12 May 2009 <>.

2 thoughts on “The Positives of Negativity

  1. I found this article stayed with me, and I kept thinking about it long after I was done reading it. However, I do wonder if you are (perhaps!) overestimating the ability of the American public to sift through negative ads to uncover what the feelings about actual issues are. You make an interesting point that the ads that are negative tend to bring up issues more than their positive counterparts and your argument that negativity itself is inherently an important part of the democratic process is compelling as well.

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