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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...)
—Jim Hightower, If God Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates
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 hand it over to Satan himself personally.
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.
- 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.
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?"
- 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 Upperclass 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.
- 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.
- In Adventures in Odyssey, when the incumbent mayor summarily resigns, "Tom for Mayor" ends up pitting go-to scoundrel Bart Rathbone against Tom Riley, with contrasting advertisements of a dramatic, deep-voiced narrator announcing that it's Time for a New Beginning against the comparatively mild (although probably attractive to the target audience; there's a banjo in it) political campaign of Tom. Also features a political debate—where both characters are voiced by the same actor—that consists largely of Rathbone taking a fast-talking "anything that sounds good" approach that sets up Tom to point out the basic contradictions in his rhetoric.
- 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!"
- In Grand Theft Auto IV, two candidates in a campaign race for governor, John Hunter and Michael Graves, take out surreal attack ads accusing their opponent of some of the most bizarre things imaginable.
"You may value your privacy, but John Hunter doesn't. He wants to install a camera in your bedroom so every time you jerk off you have to pay five dollars!"
- One of the missions in Grand Theft Auto Liberty City Stories has the player driving around Staunton Island in a campaign van doing this.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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!