Political Attack Ads. From Romans to Romney via Building Bishops


by Peter Watts

Are negative “attack ads” examples of valid public speaking, or just political porn?

2000 years ago, the Roman speakers Cicero and Quintilian both described techniques similar to attack ads. They detailed multiple methods for mobilising audiences through playing on negative themes. Quintilian recommended the whole process with the words “Man is most moved by that which he fears the most”.

The idea is that nothing gets an audience moving quite like getting them riled, so when it comes to attack ad tactics, perhaps the Roman masters would “approve this message”.

1000 years on from the Romans and the same theme is running through that early PR and advertising form, religious architecture. If you enter the medieval Abbey of Moissac in southern France then you are met by eye-level carvings of newly deceased sinners having their eternal souls ripped from their mouths by grinning demons. Next stop, sulphur lakes of Satan. Now that’s what I call an attack ad!

Here however is where attack ads depart from rhetoric. Keep casting your eye up the soaring Moissac portico and you’ll see that in the middle there are illustrations of the life well lived, and then towards the top, of how the souls of the faithful are escorted by lute-playing angels on upwards to heaven. Everybody after-lifes happily ever after.

After motivating the change at the bottom of the doorway, the actions to be taken are illustrated in the middle, and then the heavenly benefits of the change are demonstrated at the top.

Cicero and Quintilian advocated the same idea. Fine to get your audience initially jumping, but then move through argument and logic to demonstrate fully worked solution complete with concluding benefits.

This is where the attack ads miss the point. They deliver the soul-ripped-out-past-the-nostrils stuff, but leave the audience flailing in polarised passion with no credible solution beyond “This guy sucks”.

It’s one thing to whip-up your audience, but another to leave them thirsting for nothing more constructive than to start whipping someone else.

What are your thoughts on political attack ads? What effects will they have on your voting behaviour?

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