Those Negative Ads Targeting Wisconsin Voters Usually Work, Even One Decades Old

Oct 31, 2016

A version of one ad Wisconsin people are seeing in the U.S. Senate race first aired more than 50 years ago. known as the "Daisy" ad. It features an atomic explosion.  It's one of the negative ads that supporters of GOP incumbent Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Russ Feingold have been able to produce and air, because both camps have been the beneficiaries of huge injections of cash and know that negative advertising influences voters.

One of the resurrected negative ads targeting Russ Feingold features children counting down from 10, in different languages.

The countdown is followed by the image and sound of a nuclear bomb detonating. It's from the conservative super PAC, Reform America Fund, which is backing U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. As you watch the mushroom cloud bloom, you see these words: "A nuclear Iran is a threat to the world. Russ Feingold supports the Iran nuclear deal.”

The ad is powerful and provocative. And it's been done before. An ad in 1964 showed a little girl in a meadow, counting petals as she pulled them off a daisy. Her countdown is interrupted by the voice of a man counting down to the explosion of a bomb. The camera zooms in on a still image of the girl's eye, which morphs into the image of a mushroom cloud.

The anti-Feingold ad "is a copy of probably the most famous ad ever, which was an ad aired by the Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater," says Dr. Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. For many years, he directed the Wisconsin Advertising Project at UW-Madison, which studies political advertising. Goldstein says there's a very good reason why Johnson and Feingold would spend the last days of their campaigns going after each other.

"There's two ways you win an election: by getting people to vote for you, or get them to vote against the other person. So at the end of the day, I think both candidates are making a calculation that there’s not much more they can tell voters about themselves, and at the margin, they’re trying to disqualify their opponent," Goldstein says.

Here’s the text from one of the ads seeking to disqualify Johnson:

Ron Johnson: "I respect you enough to tell you the truth..."

Narrator: "But here’s the truth. Before Sen. Johnson left for Washington, he paid himself $10,000,000, a sweetheart corporate payout..."

Perhaps you’ve heard people complain about ads going negative, or maybe you shake your head. But Sachin Chheda, a political consultant with Nation Consulting in Milwaukee, says campaigns would not invest their money in negative ads if they didn’t get results.

"So, in a nutshell, negative ads work," Chheda says. He adds that in any ad, candidates are seeking to define themselves and their opponents in a way that motivates voters.   

"It’s not a black or white choice between is it a positive ad or a negative ad. There’s gradations. There’s contrast ads. There’s different ways to tell creative stories about who you are, and about who your opponent is. But the reality is that when you are attacking your opponent and you’re telling what you and your supporters perceive is the truth about your opponent, it tends to be effective, and that’s why candidates do it," Chheda says.

"I think people get too negative on negative ads," says Dr. Ken Goldstein. He thinks there is a place for negative advertising in any campaign, "as long as the ads are generally factual and as long as the other campaign has the chance to respond."

Then again, Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate candidates are also running more positive ads – and even light-hearted ones. For example, a Johnson ad demands that Packers’ games be carried statewide, even near Minnesota Vikings territory, and a spot backing Feingold tugs at the heartstrings of animal lovers.