In fact, it was the original, ineffectual "egghead," as Republicans framed Adlai Stevenson, who, in the first televised presidential ad campaign, lobbed the toughest attacks. The Illinois Democrat had famously decried selling candidates like "Ivory Soap" and would appear only in program-length speeches rather than in the 20- to 60-second "spots" of the commercial world. But Stevenson's cartoon spots had no such qualms. To-the-point and fun, "Platform Double Talk" is one of the first television ads to deflate a presidential opponent into a flip-flopper.
Meanwhile, Stevenson's "Ike...Bob" contributed to the insinuating snarl we've come to know and claim to hate. Bob is Robert Taft, the isolationist conservative whom Eisenhower was forced to reconcile with after beating him in a bitter fight for the GOP nomination. The men are reduced to two Cupid-struck hearts, the weak-voiced Bob cooing over Ike, who coos back in a more manly voice (shades of homophobia?), until a jarringly peppy jingle asks which of them would really dominate an Eisenhower White House. Even accounting for the time travel that magnifies anything cornball, the ad is really stupid. But maybe no more so than, say, equating Barack Obama with Britney Spears. (Curiously, Republicans have portrayed Obama as both an egghead intellectual and an airhead celebrity.)
Slightly more ad-savvy by the time of his second race against Eisenhower, Stevenson goes for a quick (14 seconds) jab of fear: Halloween-shaky lettering asks "Nixon?" over a dark photo of the vice president, who seems to skulk, alone, as if caught doing something wrong. "Nervous about Nixon," the voiceover asks, "President Nixon?"
So much of modern American politics (including the post-'60s, easier-to-shame Democrats) is related to a Nixonian sense of humiliation: the fears that he wasn't good enough, respected enough. Eisenhower's lighthearted remark that he couldn't recall a major idea he'd adopted from his veep of the past eight years must've made Nixon feel more of a laughingstock. (Note, by the way, the reporter's reference to President Eisenhower as "the decider.") A Nixon ad called "Best Qualified" responded with Eisenhower reciting words of praise for the GOP candidate—but JFK's spot was funnier.
The late Tony Schwartz's "Daisy" ad, in which a little girl's counting of flower petals turns into a countdown to a nuclear explosion, is so frequently, and rightly, cited as the most effective attack ad ever that here I'd rather call attention to what looks like the Daisy girl a few years older, in "Ice Cream." It has none of "Daisy"'s elegance, but as the girl patiently eats an ice cream cone, a Fractured Fairy Tales voiceover explains, in essence, that she was allowed to survive only because LBJ stopped Goldwater from dousing her with strontium-90. But then, Johnson's entire oeuvre, produced by the Volkswagen and Avis ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach during the "Golden Age of Advertising," achieved a rare balance: the spots are intelligent, even intellectual, but they go straight for the gut: attack ads that aren't tacky. Scaring the bejesus out of you, they also wash away any possible resentment for being "too smart." (And until the Goldwater spot with Raymond Massey reminded me, I had forgotten Johnson's little mess in Vietnam.)
It's ruthless: at the sight of a TV screen asking "Agnew for vice president?" a man laughs so hard he starts to choke. The legend at the end: "This would be funny if it weren't so serious." Well, this might've been effective if it weren't so glaringly nasty, or so late. After the disastrous Democratic convention, Nixon had already found one way to dance with his demons: his satanic Humphrey in the "Convention" spot is nearly as unsettling as "Daisy."
We can skip over McGovern, Carter, and Mondale—none came close to making attack ads as creatively devastating as Johnson's. There were strong Democratic spots here and there, of course, and among the hardest-hitting, though it was poorly aimed, was "Oval Office" from Dukakis. To the sound of an amplified heartbeat, we're shown headlines and photos of vice presidents who've had to suddenly take over from presidents. "After five months of reflection," George Bush chose "J. Danforth Quayle," the announcer says, driving in every patrician syllable. "Hopefully, we will never know how great a lapse of judgment that really was." It has some pow, but if you believe the conventional wisdom, voters aren't swayed by veep picks—though the 2008 race of Palin v. Biden could well alter that.
For a time, Bill Clinton solved the Democrats' confusion about who they were by saying they could become a friendlier, more efficient version of the Republicans, which he did with muscular and tactically smart advertising. Responding to attacks within 24 hours was itself a show of biceps, and the ads' consistency of style told you someone is firmly in charge. "Leaders 2"—strong, brisk, and popping with GOP policies—declares that the image of Dems as wimps is about to end.
For all their brio, however, Clinton's ads were unmemorable; at best, they were boldly bland. That was the idea: to make Democrats fit in, to make them more "Morning in America" mainstream. Even in attacks, Clinton innovated less than he improved on existing techniques—from Supergluing your foe to a known villain (in this case, Gingrich) to whacking the wrong-wrong gong ("Bob Dole: Wrong in the past. Wrong for our future"). Simply, none of Clinton's ads were as killer as the directive behind them: "It's the economy, stupid."
After getting hit by the vicious, lying Swift Boat ads, John Kerry says of George Bush, "He's lying" and "He rushed us into war." Finally. Calling a lie a lie is a boon for demoralized Democrats everywhere, a war cry for four years in the future. But, as with Dukakis and Humphrey before him, Kerry bulked up too late.