Attack of the Political Ad
"The ads they run are not generic party ads or issue ads—they are 'Bill Clinton-is-the-best-thing-since-twist-off-caps' ads and 'Bob-Dole-is-the-cause-of-halitosis-and-genital-warts' ads... (I personally doubt the genital wart claim, but...)"When campaigning for public office, it's not always about telling voters why you're the right person for the job. Sometimes, if not a lot of the time, it's about telling voters why your opponent is the wrong person for the job. Very much a fact of life in any democratic process. Since the advent of television, political campaigns have taken to the airwaves every election cycle just to point out the flaws and negative characteristics of their opponents in the most unsavory ways. They contrast the most unattractive pictures they can find of their opponent with the most appealing photos of their own candidate, they Quote Mine, they scare you into thinking that if their opponent is elected they'll, literally, send your world straight to Hell and personally hand it over to Satan himself. As such, whenever a work of fiction with political themes focuses on public campaigning, attack ads tend to show up in the most exaggerated forms, occasionally even parodying Real Life attack ads. Oftentimes, a political opponent is smeared to an extraordinary degree not just to be portrayed as the wrong person for political office but also as being downright evil. For example, the opposition candidate can be suggested to have been involved in causing any number of world disasters, accused of eating babies, or outright claimed to want to be the next Hitler. This will likely be contrasted with the endorsed candidate being portrayed in an unbelievably saintly light. Naturally, this is usually Played for Laughs. Subtrope of Propaganda Piece. Demonization is a more general case, less restrained by the necessity to keep at least formal decency. Compare Scare Campaign. Real Life examples should go under Scare Campaign.
— Jim Hightower, If God Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates
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- Late in the Senate campaign that forms the plot of The Candidate, a clearly panicking incumbent Crocker Jarmon relases a negative ad lampooning Bill's inexperience, portraying him as a schoolboy standing on a literal soapbox.
- Head of State has some pretty silly attack ads against protagonist Mays Gilliam, claiming that if he gets elected the White House will explode, or accusing him of supporting cancer because he didn't appear at a cancer rally. Mays responds by making ads consisting of his opponent getting massive praise...by KKK members and Osama bin Laden.
- The commercial breaks in WNUF Halloween Special has ads from two state governor election candidates. First one has a candidate attacking his rival by accusing him of corruption and plans for excessive gun control. The rival then retorts by having his ad accuse the other candidate about infidelity.
- America (The Book) has a page dedicated to satirizing negative political advertising as well as highlighting some of its most famous Real Life examples. Among the book's surreal claims, a year after Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad from the 1964 US Presidential election suggested that his opponent Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war, Barry Goldwater started a nuclear war; Willie Horton was Michael Dukakis's running mate in 1988; and an underground smear campaign in ancient Rome depicted Caligula as "a pretty nice guy."
- Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway has an entire chapter parodying campaign ads in which two candidates for Congress run ads against each other using the same TV announcer and the same dog and illustrated with "actual newspaper headlines" and grainy black-and-white photos of the opponent embracing Darth Vader and Adolf Hitler and abusing animals. The ads are so successful in scaring people away from voting for each other that, come election day, voter turnout is zero.
"I'm Bob Humpty, and I think it's time to stop name-calling and start talking about where we stand on the issues. I believe it's wrong to have sex with any kind of farm animal. I realize that my opponent disagrees with me. But I think we can debate this issue in a positive manner, without negativity and lies and threats by my opponent to kidnap my baby daughter."
- Running For Governor by Mark Twain is all about this.
- The Appeal by John Grisham has this happen to the Supreme Court Justice with the highest likelihood of upholding the verdict in question.
Live Action TV
- On Saturday Night Live, after the US 1988 Presidential Election, George H.W. Bush was still running new anti-Dukakis ads, even though he had already won, just because he had some campaign money left over. Content of the post-election ads would criticize Dukakis for being shorter than Bush.
"Barack Obama says he wants universal health care. Is that so? Health care for the entire universe? Including Osama bin Laden?"
- Another sketch, spoofing John McCain ads in 2008 made countless flawed arguments against his opponent Barack Obama.
- In Arrested Development, when George Michael lets Gob do an ad for his school president campaign, Gob pretty much attacks George's rival, Steve Holt, on the grounds that he doesn't even know who his father is. His father is actually GOB.
- During the US 2000 Presidential Election, The Chris Rock Show had the spoof "Mike Tyson for President" ads, which featured footage from Mike Tyson interviews admitting to things like being a convicted rapist and "a semi-good husband".
- Played with in a fake campaign ad on The State: An announcer details dangerous, controversial, or just plain weird policies a candidate allegedly supports over ominous music... Then it turns out it's actually an ad for said candidate, concluding that while he's crazy, he at least doesn't need a colostomy bag like his opponent does.
- This is how Jon Stewart ran the Oscars when he was the host.
- Played for Drama in Glee. An unnamed political opponent of Sue Sylvester decides to make an ad campaign declaring that Sue is a lesbian. Then he uses the fact that her cheerleader Santana Lopez is a lesbian as "proof"... and just outed Santana to everyone who watched the ads.
- In the Parks and Recreation episode "Campaign Ad", the protagonists toy with airing an attack ad against Lesle's Upper-Class Twit opponent in the election for city council. Leslie desperately wants to stay positive and creates a useless ad in which she only talks about "positive" things. Meanwhile, Ben creates an attack ad which is both effective and accurate, but Leslie is dead set against using it. Eventually, they compromise.
- This Hour Has 22 Minutes has featured several parody attack ads. For example, a series of Conservative party ads mocked Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberals at the time, by calling him a nerd and claiming his name is not masculine enough.
Hey Liberals: You may have your bag of money, but have you seen our new boot?Hey Liberals. You may have your bag of money, but we have a boot. The NDP: Just think what we could get done with two boots.Hey Liberals. You may have your bag of money, so we're giving you a boot. Just one boot, though. It's a very nice boot.Hey Liberals. You may have your bag of money. How aboot that?[played over the graphic] The Liberals have a bag, with words coming out of it. We think they should have tied up their bag. THIS BOOT THINKS SO TOO!
- Another segment has a voice over actor recording lines for an NDP attack ad on the Liberals, and constantly screwing up. The line was supposed to be something like "The Liberals may have their bag of money, so let's give them the boot", over a graphic of a bag of money being kicked by a boot. Some of the screwups include:
- Mother Jones made a series of attacks ads based on Game of Thrones:
- Robb Stark Attack Ad. Paid for by Crossbows GPS.
- Danaerys Targaryen, Wrong for Dragons, Wrong for the Realm. Paid for by the Committee to Protect Dragons.
- A commercial by the Barather movement demands to see Joffrey's birth certificate. Paid for by the Young Baratheons for Freedom.
- Royal Canadian Air Farce had several counter-attack ads with Stephan Dion attacking the Conservatives, such as calling him a "boondoggler".
What the 'ell is a boondoggle? I 'ave never doggled anyone's boons before.
- In Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, after criticizing the attack ads in the 2014 Senate race in Kentucky between Mitch McConnell and Allison Lundergan Grimes, John declares that "there is no way things are going to better until we collectively hit rock bottom" - so he decides to make the worst attack ads imaginable, using the full creative license that a premium cable network like HBO provides him. In the ad for McConnell, Grimes is shown slaughtering coal miners with a chainsaw. In the ad for Grimes, McConnell is represented by an old, white, wrinkled penis.
- In the 1990's Australian series Mercury, someone leaks a tape showing a government campaign prepared for the upcoming election that deliberately misconstrues an opposition party policy. The reporters for the Mercury say the campaign would have worked, if released at the right moment so the opposition wouldn't have time to show how they'd been taken out of context.
- The West Wing, being a Government Procedural, deals with this during Barlet's re-election and the campaign for his successor. The more idealistic characters are highly reluctant to go negative. Sam gets snookered into giving an anti-Bartlet spot free airtime on all the news networks. Early in the 2006note primaries, Democratic candidate Santos rejects a last-ditch effort to make a splash by calling his opponents "chicken" and does an improvised live ad himself. Later, he and Republican Vinick resist their respective advisers' urges to go negative for as long as they can for both pragmatic and personal reasons.
- In episode "The Election" of The Vicar of Dibley, the villagers work up a "dirty tricks" campaign when they decide Geraldine should run against David Horton for village councilor. Among their ideas is a spurious accusation that David ran over a villager and this charming verse:
You always vote for Horton because you thought you ought to
But he's not only had your vote, he's also had your daughter.
- Not the Nine O'Clock News: Parodied with a political ad sketch attributed to the Conservative Party. It 'proves' extravagant spending by the Labor Party through an interactive narrator who instructs a man to do silly things in his bathtub in a particularely convoluted analogy for the economy. It ends with the man having his arms cut off to "cut down on spending".
- In 2004, Mick Foley thought the big giant screens seen at political conventions resembled the Titantron, and since politics was, in his eyes, an imitation of the WWE, he figured maybe the WWE could imitate politics. This resulted in a pitch to Vince McMahon for an angle where Randy Orton would do political attack ads against Mick Foley. "Mick Foley claims to be a hardcore legend, but is he really?" McMahon laughed and approved the idea for storyline in early 2005.
- Brutally parodied to the extreme in Fallout: New Vegas. One vault was an experiment in seeing how people would put up with a political scenario where everyone had to vote for a regular sacrifice. As such, the walls are littered with attack ads.
"Vote for the other guy, not for me! He's a commie, and lazy too!"
- Done multiple times in the Grand Theft Auto series.
"O'Donovan supports compulsory buggery!"
- One of the missions in Liberty City Stories has Toni Cipriani driving around Staunton Island in a campaign van doing this.
- In GTA IV, John Hunter (Democratic) and Michael Graves (Republican), candidates for governor of the state surrounding Liberty City, take out surreal attack ads accusing each other of some of the most bizarre things imaginable, from the plausible (Hunter opposed private ordnance, while Graves opposed moves to repeal amendments preventing full-scale espionage on suspected terrorists) to the outlandish (Hunter wanted CCTVs installed in bedrooms to fine masturbators, as well as transfer funds from schools to drug addicts, while Graves wanted to raise taxes for free condoms in schools) and even the outright Ad Hominem (Hunter is a bald man with erectile dysfunction, while Graves shirked from The Vietnam War and is a pedophile with a morally reprehensible wife). Both also end up becoming Not So Different from each other by accusations of advocating underage sex, supporting a retreat from The War on Terror, and fiscal conservatism.
- GTA V continues this tradition with Jock Cranley and Sue Murry, gubernatorial candidates for San Andreas and extreme stereotypes of the right and left wing, respectively. Cranley's ad has him calling Murry a shrew and giving her demon horns and Glowing Eyes of Doom, while Murry's ad calls Cranley a drug-addled, apparently brain-damaged dunce. Strangely, this is a case where both sides' mud-slinging is actually completely true. Cranley's appearance on Blaine County Talk Radio paints him as a total dumbass whose campaign is composed entirely of testosterone-addled posturing focusing on his past as a Hollywood Action Hero and stuntman, with him openly insulting just about everybody (with shades of Mitt Romney's "47%" remarks) and showing no understanding of the issues. Murry is no better, with her appearance on WCTR painting an image of a hyper-PC, big-government, nanny-state elitist who "knows what's best" for everyone (being a former schoolteacher and all).
- In Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines we have these priceless ads:
Announcer: [sinister music] Last year, Democratic Candidate Micheal Rebbins has purchased a Sports Utility Vehicle. Three months later there have been two separate incidences of hit-and-runs by unidentified SUVs in his area. Is Democratic Candidate Micheal Rebbins to blame? Can you afford that chance? Can your children? [upbeat music] Vote Republican Senator Robert Thorne, a candidate who has never committed vehicular homicide![...]Announcer: [sinister music] Democratic Candidate Micheal Rebbins has never publicly stated his opinion on child pornography. Is it because he's hiding something? Would you want a child pornographer voting on this nation's laws? Would you trust your children's future to someone like that? [upbeat music] Vote Republican Senator Robert Thorne, who is committed to locking up child pornographers![...]Announcer: [sinister music] Democratic Candidate Micheal Rebbins recently sued Senator Robert Thorne for accusing Rebbins of being a murderous child pornographer. But Rebbins had previously said he was against clogging up courts with frivolous lawsuits. Wouldn't this make him a hypocrite? Would you want a hypocrite as your next Congressman? Would you want your children to become hypocrites? [upbeat music] Vote for Republican Senator Robert Thorne! A candidate not accused of being a murderous child pornographer!
- The Non-Adventures of Wonderella had this little gem. "Can we afford..?" argument included.
- Death to the Extremist: Two attempts this tactic ("My esteemed candidate is unqualified, and also a convicted felon maybe) when he thinks One is running against him for mayor.
- Mandatory Roller Coaster had this uncharacteristically honest political ad.
- Sinfest shows why you should vote Slick!
- Played with in this featured article from Something Awful. It is written up as an attack piece on a candidate Freddy Krueger for Mayor of Springwood. While the attacks on Krueger are incredibly outlandish and surreal, none of them have anything to do with the obvious: Freddy being a dream-stalking child murderer — claims which the author of the piece dismisses as "rumors" and a ploy to spark "mudslinging" which the author refuses to take part in.
- This video seeks to prove this trope is Older Than They Think by taking actual quotes from the candidates of the Presidential election of 1800 and turns them into modern attack ads that manage to sound even more over the top that the real thing.
- One of Cracked's takes here.
- The Alternate History story Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72, being rooted in changes to the 1972 Presidential election and their impact on the world, naturally features a ton of these. One ad in particular during Donald Rumsfeld's 1980 campaign attacks Democratic Presidential candidate Hugh Carey, the Governor of New York, for alleged ties to The Mafia, using a crude, Michael Corleone-esque Italian "Don" caricature; it is specifically noted that the ad was not played in places with high Italian-American populations.
- Parodied by College Humor in "If the Other Party Wins", which parodies both American political parties' ads. If Obama wins, according to Republicans, we will all live in a Free-Love Future with pansexual potsmoking children, where flags are burned, minorities are given scholarships to Yale straight out of grade school, terrorists and illegal immigrants will run rampant, and worse. If McCain wins, according to Democrats, Walmart will get its own country, the U.S. becomes a theocracy where children are taught that Jesus wrote the Constitution, homosexuals are jailed,children are drafted straight out of elementary school and encouraged to play with assault rifles, global warming has run rampant, and people are punished for any small insult to the U.S.
- On The Simpsons, when Sideshow Bob ran for Springfield Mayor, his campaign took out an ad against Mayor Quimby parodying George H.W. Bush's "Revolving Door Prison" attack ad from the 1988 election. In the ad, prisoners are seen leaving the Springfield State Prison through a revolving door and over the walls on escalators and ski lifts while a narrator lets us know,
"Mayor Quimby supports revolving door prisons. Mayor Quimby even released Sideshow Bob, a man twice convicted of attempted murder. Can you trust a man like Mayor Quimby? Vote Sideshow Bob for Mayor."
- In a Rocko's Modern Life cartoon where Mr. Bighead decides to challenge Rocko in a campaign for town dog catcher, he takes out an ad suggesting that Rocko is responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, the sinking of the Titanic, and the 1958 Edsel. An "artist rendering" of Rocko depicts him with sharp teeth, a menacing demeanor, and a speech bubble reading, "I'm mean." Also, Ed's campaign slogan was, "Ed good. Rocko bad."
- In Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Bloo and Herriman prepare an attack ad campaign against Frankie (who is running for house administrator), complete with catchy jingle.
- On Family Guy, when Peter is running for the Quahog school board against Lois, he aired an attack ad against his own wife, using a boudoir photo Lois gave him as evidence of her immoral character. Cleveland, in a voice-over, apologizes to Lois at the end of the ad.
- On Clone High, when Abe and JFK are running for student body president, JFK makes an attack ad against Abe. First the ad claims Abe is a liar because his answer to what his age is was different to what it was a year before, and then footage of Abe eating spaghetti is very poorly edited to make it look like he's eating a baby.
- Futurama: Not a candidate-focused ad, but "Proposition Infinity" parodies the famed "Gathering Storm" ad campaign.
Amy: We can't compete against that much stock footage of clouds!
- In My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, Sunset Shimmer tries to destroy Twilight's reputation and keep her out of the running for Princess of the Fall Formal with an embarrassing viral video done in the style of a political attack ad, including gratuitous use of the Photoshop Filter of Evil.