It is said, and I believe it, that one reason commercials are so negative is because negative works. In an era when many people vote not for a candidate but against one, it's only natural: voters don't trust politicans anyway, so spend your time convincing them that the other guy is even worse than you are.
Particularly if you're young, you might be surprised to learn that this was not always the case. In fact, candidates used to spend most of their time (and these commercials did take up time; no 30-second soundbite back in the day) talking about - surprise - themselves! And if they weren't in the commercial personally, the voiceover was all about them.
We can see this by taking a brief spin through television campaign history.
The first presidential campaign in which television was really a major player was in 1952. Here's a typical one-minute commercial for Eisenhower, directed by none other than Roy Disney.
JFK was our first television president, and yet this 1960 commerical is much more in the Eisenhower vein. Forget the corny music - notice that the emphasis is still on Kennedy himself, rather than his opponent Nixon.
The first commerical that could really be thought of as "negative" was LBJ's infamous "Daisy" commercial. It was shown only once, but it made such an impact that it didn't need to be shown again. This commercial is probably the spiritual godfather of today's ads. (Stick with the ad that precedes it; this is one of the best quality clips available.)
Nixon was often riduculed for his television appearances, what with his heavy beard and shifty appearance, but the 1960 campaign taught him a lesson about the importance of TV, and his 1968 commericals, in which he doesn't appear (a conscientious choice - it was thought that Nixon's words would be more powerful when combined with picture montages), are surprisingly effective. Note that his opponent, Humphrey, is only mentioned by implication; this is all about Nixon and what he'll do if elected.
One of the very best political commercials of recent years is the "bear in the woods" commercial by Reagan in 1980. Notice again that this is not what could be called a "negative" ad - it doesn't tear Carter down (he could do that just fine on his own), but builds Reagan up.
These commercials, on the whole, are a lot more upbeat (some would say naive) than what we see today. Even the most negative, the Daisy commerical (which really was one of the dirtiest ads ever used in a campaign) would be tame compared to the dreck we see today. Obviously, somewhere along the line our political commercials went horribly wrong.
I find this discouraging, not just because of the endless negativity of these commercials, but because of their sameness. There's no creativity, no humor, no style, no sense of being unique. No surprise, since most of them come from the same agencies; just change a few pictures and names, and the same commercial could be used around the country.
Which is why the internet might save the political commercial yet. The best, most creative, edgiest commercials of this election cycle are the ones produced for the web. This commercial, by David Zucker (of Airplane! and Police Squad fame) is possibly the best, funniest, most effective political commercial I've seen since Reagan. Regardless of how you feel and how you're going to vote, this commercial can't help but bring a smile to your face. And note the cameos: from Clint Howard (whose political ideology we've discussed before), to the great Ed Ames (doing a wonderful spoof of his role as the Indian Mingo in Daniel Boone).