It’s not just you: political attack ads are more frequent, more personal

Campaign signs for Illinois races outside the Peoria County Election Commission.
Campaign signs for Illinois races outside the Peoria County Election Commission.(WEEK)
Published: Nov. 2, 2022 at 4:07 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25 News Now) - Political attack ads are as old as political television ads themselves, starting with the infamous “Daisy” ad in the 1960′s promising nuclear war if Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was elected.

If you’re noticing the ads more often, and feel like they’re trending towards more personal and “vicious” attacks, you’re not alone. Professor of Political Science at Bradley University Meghan Remmel said negative ads are more common in competitive races. Three competitive races: The 17th Congressional District, Illinois Governor’s, and 91st Illinois House seat, are located either in the state or Central Illinois.

Those high-stakes races mean voters are inundated with political ads, especially negative ones.

“You’re seeing a lot of ads because they are so prized, these races,” Remmel said.

Attack ads have grown more popular over the past four or five election cycles, Remmel said. Competitive races are growing rare, which means when they do arise they draw lots of money and ads to try and sway votes.

Typically, however, those negative ads are often not sent out by the campaign committee vouching for the candidate. Instead, they are funded and pushed out by political action committees in opposition to a certain candidate. These are the ads viewers are seeing most often in the Peoria area.

Negative ads are effective in the sense that voters are more likely to remember them, but they can backlash against the candidate for mudslinging or playing dirty.

To avoid that backlash, Remmel says campaigns use a “good cop, bad cop” ad strategy. A candidate’s campaign committee will make positive ads highlighting their candidate and why they are a good, trustworthy person, while PACs aligned with the candidate’s party create ads bashing their opponent. A candidate doesn’t have to answer for the content in a negative advertisement because it was funded or created by their committee.

For example, attack ads against 17th Congressional district Republican candidate Esther Joy King are largely funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while attack ads against her opponent, Democrat Eric Sorensen, are funded by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is by Republican congressmen and women.

The content of the ads is changing. Remmel said it’s no longer an attack on policy or priorities but instead focuses on who candidates are as a person. For example, calling an opponent a “liar,” “untrustworthy,” or someone who will blindly follow in the footsteps of their national party leaders.

“They’ve certainly gotten more vicious,” Remmel said. “A lot of these negative campaign ads still have a policy focus to them, but the language and tone used is certainly more personal and, for lack of a better word, nasty.”

“It’s beyond ‘not only do we disagree on policy positions,’ but ‘this person is dangerous, this person is lying, this person is manipulating you,’” she continued. “It’s now ‘this person is wrong on this policy and they’re also a terrible human being.’”