Attack ads

In what ways do politicians use language to tear down their rivals? “Negative campaigning or mudslinging is the process of deliberate spreading negative information about someone or something to worsen the public image of the described” (Wikipedia, 2020). Politicians have been doing this for decades. In this lesson you will view several ‘attack ads’ and discuss their arguments, style and effectiveness.

  1. Below are 4 videos (Texts 1-4). How do Text 2 and 4 (attack ads against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump) borrow from Texts 1 and 2 and use intertextuality to construct meaning? (Re)visit the page on Intertextuality: connecting texts to learn more about various forms of intertextuality, such as spoof, satire and allusion. Which terms are relevant to Texts 2 and 4? Discuss

  2. Watch the following compilation of attack ads from candidates for US president as a class. Stand up before watching the video a second time. Label one side of your classroom ‘fair’ and the other side ‘unfair’. When watching the video a second time, pause it after each ad. If you feel that the attacker’s argument is fair, go to one side of the room. If you feel the ad is unfair, stand on the other side of the room. Each side of the room should give their arguments for why they think the attack ad is fair or unfair. Listen to each other. Then play the next ad in the compilation, before pausing it and moving to a side of the room to discuss how fair or unfair it is.

  3. After you have viewed the compilation of attack ads a second time and discussed them, get into groups of 2-4 students. Select one of the attack ads from the compilation that you would like to research further. Prepare a short presentation in which you show your classmate’s your attack ad (in its entirety) and explore your answers to the following questions:

    • What is the tone and mood of the attack ad? How are they constructed through the use of sound, (moving) image, language and camera techniques?

    • Return to the kinds of arguments presented in the previous discussion. Research argument fallacies such as: ad hominem, post hoc ergo propter hoc, straw man fallacy, over-simplification, false dichotomy, fear mongering, name calling, guilty by association or any other fallacy that you find relevant.

    • Research the response to the attack ad. How did people respond to the ad after they came out? How did the ad affect the candidate’s position in the polls? Did the ad get the candidate elected? Did the ad backfire and hurt the candidate?

    • Are attack ads, in general, effective? As a group research answers to this question and present your findings to your classmates.


For whom should you vote? How do you know this for sure? Language and the mass media play a large role in shaping public opinion. If campaigns and attack ads use argumentation fallacies to spread misinformation, should they be allowed to run at all? Should there be limits to 'freedom of speech' to prevent smear campaigns that use language to mislead voters?


Attack ads may be useful sources of analysis for an HL Essay (HLE) or individual oral (IO). Be sure that there are several ads in the campaign to constitute a 'body of work' (BOW). The campaigns in this BOW should include a range of texts such as billboards, commercials, print advertisements or Tweets. Refer to multiple texts from the BOW in your HLE or IO. 

Last modified: Tuesday, 12 May 2020, 10:16 AM