Recent accusations from Sen. John McCain's campaign paint Sen. Barak Obama as an unprepared, tax-raising, empty-headed celebrity. Mr. Obama counters with his own accusations that Mr. McCain is in the pocket of DHL and big oil, wants radioactive waste sent to Nevada ASAP, and is a low-road-taking Washingtonian. These ads are running more and more in the battleground states, on national cable news and on the hallowed network airwaves of NBC's Olympics.
So what should we make of the sudden onslaught of mudslinging? The McCain campaign bucked all conventional wisdom and free advice from the talking heads and placed its attack ads proudly in the Olympics, proving to all that this race is a referendum on Mr. Obama. Team McCain made its feelings on his candidacy clear with a second network TV ad advancing the theme of portraying Mr. Obama as a celebrity.
The Obama campaign has responded with a series of its own attack ads in battleground states such as Michigan, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio. However, by running these attack ads Mr. Obama could be treading on thin ice. His brand has been built on the idea of being a different kind of politician. Yet, time and time again we are reminded of the lessons learned in the 2004 "swift boat" debacle. The Obama campaign is in a tough spot. It must evaluate the potential cost to its brand of participating in a negative ad war vs. the damage of unanswered attacks.
At this point, Mr. McCain has nothing to lose by going negative. However, he will likely need to come up with a second act. The "celebrity" spots stopped the bleeding and gave his campaign its best couple of weeks thus far in the general election. With an unpopular party, president, war and a suffering economy, it is likely going to take more than attacks to win in November. Bold moves by Mr. McCain may be the best complement to his efforts to define Mr. Obama.
If the current rate of attack ads continues, this election will have more than 100 uninterrupted days of negative ads with a potential cost of more than $350 million (and that is just from the candidates). I have always believed that when executed correctly, negative ads do work. They empower supporters and place uncertainty in the minds of many undecided voters. This election will be one of the best petri dishes yet to evaluate just how valuable or detrimental these ads can be and how much is enough for the American viewer and voter.
If you like a good fight and Olympic boxing isn't enough, grab some popcorn and move to Ohio!
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Evan Tracey is the founder and chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company. See his complete bio.