1992 Presidential Campaign Television Advertising
Bush apparently opened the floodgates for negative campaigning in his first presidential campaign in 1988 -- the Bush I team was so good at being bad that he became sort of a "poster child of effective attack politics" (Lau, Sigelman and Rovener, 2007, p. 1176) for negative campaign ads. But the Clinton team learned fast, as history demonstrates. What did the Bush team do wrong? The models in use at the time "predicted a landslide victory for the incumbent, President George H.W. Bush," "falsely," it turns out (Haynes and Stone, 2004, p. 1). We can start by looking at what his opposition did right.
"Morning" delivers a clear, feel-good fear message, specifically that "America needs to change from Bush to Clinton because Bush used U.S. tax money to send jobs overseas." Bush offshores American jobs. The laid-off working folks are just like all the other working folks who got canned in the numerous districts I suspect this ad was crafted specifically for -- 26,000 of them or even 117,000 if we could believe the commercial. We can't 'buy American' anymore, the workplace is just like a/the family, this is so unpleasant a grown man nearly starts sobbing. But the ad doesn't feel like a hit job, because the people are so nice and welcoming with their pronounced old-South accents; there is no racial tension or generation conflict between these laid-off southerners; this is a gentle assassination that makes us feel good about our values and buy something American. Oh, and tell a friend: Bush hates jobs. Crafted with pride in the U.S.A. "That sign means nothing, really." This is intended to show it does, to Clinton only.
Althouse, Nardulli and Shaw (2001) demonstrate that spots like these are often aimed at niche markets (p. 29). It seems plausible not to fish in the heartland with actors from New York City, or target Los Angeles by referring to voters from Appalachia (Althouse, Nardulli and Shaw 2001, p. 6). In fact Census data (2000) reveal that the regions of the U.S. with the largest increases in poverty by 1989 exactly mirror the linguistic profile in "Morning," West Virginia and South Central, from Kentucky and Tennessee to Oklahoma and Texas (and the Midwest, but there is a different version for them). Frankel and Orszag (2001) suggest this "jobless recovery" (3) was Bush's pre-existing Achilles' heel. The fact is, research demonstrates the results of these ads, and campaigning in general, is usually mixed (Althouse, Nardulli and Shaw 2001, p. 30)
A look at the Bush negative campaign ad "Arkansas 2" from the 1992 race shows a stark difference from the Clinton approach. We find the same kind of slides claiming unhappy statistics about job loss and environmental degradation in Arkansas, attributed to research foundations rather than popular news sources. We hear about bad debt, rampant public spending, tax increases and crime. Even children are not safe under Clinton's oversight.
Not a single person appears in "Arkansas 2." We see what is possibly American countryside, barren and desolate like the Dust Bowl. Time-lapsed, sped-up thunderstorms churn the darkening skies as the light fades on a shattered tree in which a lone hawk waits for game where there is none. The warning Clinton doubled his state's debt comes with an image of ripe wheat ready for the harvest, but the sky goes black instead. Perhaps it will be flattened in the gathering storm, or struck by lightning that looks like it was superimposed in iMovie 1.2.
If negative campaign ads reduce voters' identification with both candidates as Lau, Sigelman and Rovener (2007, p.1183) and Benoit, Leshner and Chattopadhyay (2007, p. 510) suggest, this ad takes the 'race to the bottom' to new lows. This 'attrition' approach where the victim loses more but the attacker loses some in the attack helped send Bush Sr. out of office. Where the Clinton attack ad was focused on one major campaign issue, job loss, particularly manufacturing jobs, this bleak and black menace comes off like a heavy metal video, convicting Clinton of a laundry list of offenses that clouds rather than clarifies by presenting too much information for the viewer to assimilate. If campaign commercials provide a useful source of information on campaign issues for voters (Benoit, Leshner and Chattopadhyay, 2007, p. 517), less may be more if we consider Clinton's focused, targeted attack ads where the Bush team's message was basically "all these bad things will end up in armageddon for America."
The problem is we can only remember the last two or three accusations. Nor are heartland voters likely to trust cosmopolitan think tanks for their information; anyone who might be receptive to the sources would see through the apocalyptic exaggeration. In fact tax increases seem to have been more an aspect of national policy under Bush than limited to Arkansas (Frankel and Orszag, 2001 p. 8). A wider problem seems to be that this type of campaigning demoralizes voters toward the electoral process and government in general, although possibly may stimulate voter turnout (Lau, Sigelman and Rovener, 2007, p. 1184). On the other hand, this may benefit commercial advertisers, if tv watchers are relieved to see their happy, cheerful product ads after the Grapes of Wrath is over. No one wants this in their living room; it scares the kids and it may have generated more votes for Perot than for the Bush campaign in 1992.
But help is right around the corner, if we put Bush back in office: His 'positive,' self-promoting ad starts out with the night vision footage that so fascinated CNN viewers during Operation Desert Storm. At least this ad has a coherent message: "Who do you want commanding the armed forces?" This is important because the world is full of screaming Muslims raging to take Americans back to Lebanon and hold them hostage, to be marched through the streets blindfolded, powerless at the hands of dark-skinned "revolutionary terrorists" who may now or soon be armed with "nuclear" and "chemical weapons." Gorbachev and Yeltsin make cameos as vague old white men in brown trench coats but Bush will send his F-15s to regulate. Given just a few more seconds, the Jihadis will start burning U.S. flags and violating the Statue of Liberty, unless we put GHWB back at his desk in the Oval Office, which slowly pans into our field of vision with solemn dignity. The message is, "The world is full of maniacal terrorists, Bush did a great job in Gulf Storm, we have a bunch of F-15s, and you better re-elect Bush if you don't want America beheaded by the scimitars of Islam and communism."
Clinton's feel-good self-promo "Hope" links him with JFK who is probably widely associated with Civil Rights, the space program and many other good things besides Vietnam. Gone are Bush's screaming terrorists; instead we have calming, soothing images of Clinton "not interested in making a lot of money," but serving the families of his old neighborhood; paying back his debt to his poor grandparents; growing up in a house like you and me. Clinton, too, was a baby at one time. Now he holds toddlers when he speaks in public. A senior lady hugs him for knowing health care is expensive.
Again, the message is focused: Home Town Boy. Like Elvis, almost. In both ads the Clinton team chose to show people viewers wanted to identify with, in soothing terms even when stabbing the opponent to death. This decision perhaps contributed to his victory, although experts dispute how important attack ads may be in the end (Lau, Sigelman and Rovener 2007 p. 1184). Comparing these messages seems to demonstrate how the lose-lose approach may be a necessary defense strategy if the other side launches the attack campaign, but if both sides can refrain from character assassination in the first place, they both may possibly improve voter turnout (Benoit, Leshner and Chattopadhyay, 2007, p. 517), public perceptions of government in general and toward both candidates, promote education about domestic and international issues (Benoit, Leshner and Chattopadhyay, 2007, p. 508), and increase critical thinking toward consumer advertising (Iyengar and Prior, 1999 p. 10) once the screaming jihadis give way to the fresher air of dryer sheet and buttermilk biscuit marketing.
The lesson from this analysis seems clear: Violent, depressing images overloaded with too much detail do not attract the American political consumer, if "political ads are dismissed as dishonest, unappealing, and uninformative" (Iyengar and Prior, 1999 p. 10). Research suggests military threat can help candidates who can demonstrate command (Haynes and Stone, 2004, p. 5; 7), but this can be a double-edged sword if the public fears the tax burden (Haynes and Stone p. 5), and blame the incumbent for events outside his control (Frankel and Orszag, 2001, p. 13). The video ends with the empty presidential desk, asking "who do you most trust to be sitting in this chair?" This may be the 'seat' of the problem: There is no one…