Back in 1988, Republicans unleashed the infamous “Willie Horton” attack ad criticizing Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’s record on criminal justice, and it’s was awarded a lot of credit for George H.W. Bush’s eventual White House win. It’s also been widely condemned for its cheap scare tactics, negative racial overtones, and more. In fact, former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater wrote of his overall regret for the ad while on his deathbed. Now, almost 30 years later, the GOP unveiled an ad attacking Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s criminal justice record in similar fashion.
Launched the day before Kaine takes the stage for the vice presidential debate against Trump running mate Mike Pence, both Republican Party chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer and the RNC retweeted a Roll Call piece calling it a “Willie-Horton-style” ad. Those tweets have since been deleted.
Will similar scare tactics play in the Republicans’ favor? Well, since we asked top advertising executives about Hillary Clinton’s “Mirrors” ad last week, now we get their thoughts on this commercial coming form the other side.
Keith Cartwright, executive creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners: “Fear and scare tactics are unfortunately all this ad seems to serve. George H.W. Bush tried this years ago with the infamous Willie Horton Attack ad from 1988. Music, voice over, and the coloring of the film all try to convince me that Tim Kaine is a villain. Are the facts true? Possibly. Unfortunately everything I’ve seen or heard about Tim Kaine in the press speak to the contrary. I’m just not buying it.”
Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners: “This ad is not surprising in the least. In typical Trump style, it uses scare tactics to bully voters into supporting him. I do not anticipate that it will have the same implications that the attack ad featuring Willie Horton did, which cost Dukakis the election. But, then again, only history will tell.”
Patrick Scissons, global chief creative officer at KBS:
“Everything about it seems serious. The message. The voice over. The music. The Making-a-Murderer-esque treatment to stock images and file footage. And then you put it all together and are left with something that you wonder if it could even be taken seriously (regardless of political party or person in question). Ah yes, the line between political advertising and Jack Ryan thriller movie trailer continues to blur. And dear god, please make it shorter. These days, if you can’t tactfully smear a candidate in 15 or 30 seconds you shouldn’t be in the game.”