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Unflattering images are effective campaign tool

Television viewers in Iowa who tuned in recently might have caught a campaign ad featuring a svelte flyboy who mans a helicopter over hostile fire in Vietnam.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Television viewers in Iowa who tuned in recently might have caught a campaign ad featuring a svelte flyboy who mans a helicopter over hostile fire in Vietnam.

That's Rep. Leonard Boswell. The same Leonard Boswell who looks sluggish and corpulent in footage used in another ad, this one paid for by Jeff Lamberti, Boswell's opponent in Iowa's 3rd District congressional race.

Negative campaigning, of course, cuts both ways. You can tell by looking at Lamberti's face - clean shaven in his ads, but mustachioed in a pair of mailers sent by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Make the opponent look bad
The images - Boswell tired and unhealthy, Lamberti as smug - work to hammer home visually messages each campaign has pushed throughout the election cycle. And they're something else: recent examples of a campaign tactic that seems to become more refined every two years.

In 1988, it was Democrat Michael Dukakis in the tank, peering out from beneath a helmet. In the 2004 campaign, it was footage of Democrat John Kerry windsurfing back and forth in a brisk wind.

The pictures often leave a misleading impression. The footage of Boswell, for example, was shot shortly before he had stomach surgery. Lamberti, likewise, had shorn his mustache months before the 3rd Congressional District race heated up.

But that's not really the point.

"The picture is worth a thousand words," says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "And it's a basic principle of advertising to make the opponent look bad. Using unflattering images is one of the most basic, and effective, ways to do that."

It's a maxim that plays out on the airwaves across the country, everyday:

- In Washington state, incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell criticizes her Republican opponent, Mike McGavick, for taking a large payout when he left his job as an insurance company executive - punctuating the message with an image of McGavick grinning, decked out in a tuxedo.

- In Ohio's 1st Congressional District race, an ad from Republican Rep. Steve Chabot questions Democratic challenger John Cranley's judgment while flashing a picture of Cranley tightening his tie with a goofy expression on his face.

- Colorado's 7th Congressional District race has featured an ad by Republican Rick O'Donnell that says Democrat Ed Perlmutter would raise taxes - and features footage of Perlmutter twiddling his thumbs and fidgeting.

Campaigns typically demur when pressed on why they use such footage. But Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, says it's Campaigns 101.

"Of course you want to paint your opponent as someone who is not attractive, who does not inspire confidence, who gives off whatever the local culture finds repulsive and disturbing," Schmidt said.

"The real truth of the matter is that television is still a huge way that you meet voters."