Negative adverts are nasty, but they have been nastier

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The Independent US

It's an American political art form, as old as the republic but flourishing in this election campaign as never before.

It's an American political art form, as old as the republic but flourishing in this election campaign as never before.

Welcome to the world of the negative advertisement, where every politician in America is a simpleton if he's lucky, though more likely a venal, abortion-crazy liar. From the Everest of the presidential contest to the lowly foothills of the congressional and state legislative races, negative ads are everywhere - a $1bn-plus bonanza for local television and radio stations, but a maddening distraction to ordinary citizens seeking merely to go about their business.

Unlike other advertising, negative ads are intended not to promote one's own brand, but to destroy the reputation of rival brands. Unquestionably, they are a significant factor in the low turn-out in American elections at all levels and add to the endemic cynicism about politicians. But they do work.

This time around, among the pick of the bunch - if that is the right expression - has been the spot run by the civil rights group NAACP, showing a van dragging a chain and reminding viewers of the horrendous 1998 lynching of a black man by three white men in Texas where George W Bush is Governor. The Bush camp hit back with one calling Mr Gore a liar.

But so far none has had the impact of the infamous Willie Horton ad devised by Lee Atwater, master of the darker political arts and campaign strategist of George Bush Snr in 1988. Dealing with a paroled black rapist who later committed a murder, the advertisement attacked Mr Bush's opponent Michael Dukakis to devastating effect, summoning visceral white fears of black men and implying that the Massachusetts governor was soft on crime.

Willie Horton hasn't resurfaced this time, but another past classic has: the celebrated "Daisy ad" used by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to depict the Republican Barry Goldwater as a trigger-happy madman capable of launching nuclear war.

In 2000, roles have been reversed. The new Republican version, in colour but otherwise virtually identical, again has a little girl pulling petals off a daisy before she disappears into a mushroom cloud - suggesting that Clinton and Gore have left the US vulnerable to nuclear attack from China.

But the current presidential campaign is but the tip of the negative ad iceberg. Visit any swing state and its wall-to-wall carpeting with negative advertising is clear for all to see. For their battle-weary inhabitants, the only consolation is that tomorrow the barrage will be over - at least for four years.