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"What you do in advertising is you get your can of soup, and you hold it up to the audience and say 'It tastes great, it's full of iron, fiber and vitamins, you should buy some'. What we do in politics is hold up the other guys' can of soup and say 'It's poison, it'll kill you!'"
Petro Georgiou, quoted on Gruen Nation

A Scare Campaign is a political advertising campaign based around the terrible things the other party or candidate will do if they get into/retain power. This is based around the idea that a voter who is on the fence is more likely to believe negative messages about one's opponent than positive messages about oneself. Studies have shown this to be one of the most effective types of political campaigns.

Naturally, political candidates will believe that many of their opponents' policies are wrong; that's why they're opponents. And in some sense, tearing down the opponent's position is just as important as building up your own. But let's face it: the vast majority of Scare Campaigns are about creating fear rather than debating. Most of them are based on wild conjecture, playing up a candidate's links to "bad people" no matter how tenuous, and sometimes just plain lies. Even when a valid point is made, expect the same creepy scary music and disturbing voiceover. This may even extend to Deliberately Monochrome techniques in the case of outrageous claims.

This trope is most popularly seen in Real Life in pure form. In fiction, a Scare Campaign will usually be played by for laughs by a goofy character, or deadly serious by a villainous one who seeks to use one to do dirty, evil things. Both of these portrayals are, naturally, based on the assumption that the audience knows the Scare Campaign is a dirty trick.

Compare Scare'Em Straight for uncomfortable similarities, and expect copious amounts of Strawmen Political.

Be warned, however, of accidentally creating a Strawman Political of your own by giving Scare Campaign examples which, in themselves, amount to a Scare Campaign. For this reason, please make sure to be specific in your examples, giving direct citations when possible. This is especially important with more extreme examples. When it comes to politics, a simple "I am not making this up" just won't do.

Outside of the realm of politics, this is known as Fear Uncertainty And Doubt- generally kept to business-to-business companies, it sees Established Company X spend more time telling you how Startup Company Y's similar product will make you lose money/customers/extremities rather than how their own products will make you money/customers/extremities.

See Also: Attack of the Political Ad, for fictional parodies and exaggerations.

Examples of Scare Campaign include:


Australia

  • In their late 2007 election campaign, Australians were subjected to both Labor ads about Howard and Costello wanting to take away even more workers' rights, and Coalition ads about "anti-business" unions running the country if Labor got in. Labor won, and analysts commented that Australians still seem to have respect for the union movement despite the Howard government's attempts to demonize them. The Chaser, naturally, had something to say about it...
  • An intra-party example came during the struggle for Liberal Party leadership between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, with Turnbull saying that under Abbott, they would "become a fringe party of the far right". Abbott won.


Canada

  • In the 2008 Canadian general elections, the New Democratic Party ran ads against the Conservative Party and Bloc Quebecois, portraying them as corrupt authoritarians and useless good-for-nothings respectively, followed by scenes of Ghibli Hills while a voiceover explains the NDP platform.
    • Of course, in Quebec, Bloc Quebecois won most seats and the NDP won only one - and that was solely on the strength of their local candidate.
    • There are also Stephen Harper's Conservative attack ads, which were attacks first on Stephane Dion, then Michael Ignatieff. Some involved quoting magazine interviews from years back in which Ignatieff says he's an intellectual. Then, it cuts to Mr. Harper in his Blue Sweatervest of Family Values.
    • In the 1993 Canadian federal election, the Progressive Conservatives ran an ad that (at least in popular perception) was a scare campaign targeted at the Liberal leader Jean Chrétien's facial disfigurement cause by his Bell's palsy. The Tories went from 169 seats to 2 in that election. The ad lost them ten percentage points in one day as Chretien leapt at the opportunity to give a speech about being a little guy who was Inspirationally Disadvantaged.
  • Parodied by the Rick Mercer Report during the 2006 Canadian election - see here. There's a second one that accuses Stephen Harper of giving live grenades to children.
  • The 2011 federal election was a bit less alarmist on all sides, as the Conservatives and NDP realized that they could both gain at the expense of the Liberals and the Bloc (which they did). As a result, it's a fair statement that this election had two winners, without too much mudslinging.
    • There was little mudslinging between the Conservatives and the NDP. However, the entire Conservative strategy was essentially portraying the Liberal leader Michael Iggnatieff as evil for having lived in the United States while teaching at Harvard.
  • In 2003, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario accidentally released an overblown press release identifying the Liberal Party leader, Dalton McGuinty, as an "evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet". McGuinty instantly responded with "I like cats" with a self-deprecating smile that charmed the public and caught a lucky break during a photo-op when a cat wandered to him and he got to pet it for the camera. The result is that he won the election with a solid majority.


United Kingdom

  • In the run up to the 1997 General Election in the U.K. the Conservative party opted for 100% Nightmare Fuel while trying to discredit the Labour Party. Their party political broadcast featured a pair of giant, scowling red eyes following around the hard working UK public - glaring up at them from ATM machines, frowning down at them from the sky, and (used in most of the billboard adverts) peering evilly out from the black gap between two red curtains. In the television adverts, a voice listed the scary, scary things the Labour party would do (like raising taxes) before repeating "New Labour -- New Danger". It's worth noting that the actual "dangers" were pretty run-of-the-mill political policies; it was campaign's presentation that was designed to make them as scary as possible.
    • Labour retaliated by depicting the Conservatives as a pair of disembodied, grey, grasping hands, playing on the Conservatives' reputation for taking money and public spending from the working classes to fund the rich. In the end, Labour won in a landslide victory, but it probably wasn't due to their ad campaign -- most people agreed the Conservative one was more effective and scarier, but it didn't stop people from voting Labour for other reasons.
    • Those were the toned down versions. Initially, Conservative posters gave the scary red eyes to Tony Blair, while Labour posters featured a literally two-faced John Major.
  • The UK's new Conservative Government has pledged to overturn the ban on hunting with dogs, despite the majority of the country supporting the ban. Coincidentally there have been two incidents recently where children have been injured by foxes, and the pro-hunters and right wing press have demonized both foxes and animal rights campaigners (including Queen's Brian May). Queue descriptions of savage attacks by animals stalking the streets in vast numbers on beautiful innocent babies (and cute kitties, puppies and bunnies), and some photos of yawning snarling foxes. Animal rights campaigners were even accused of threatening the family of two of the victims, despite the police saying there was no specific threat; just some concerning comments.
  • The 2010 election in the UK was a full on scare campaign from both sides. The Conservatives big scare campaign centred around the disaster a hung parliament would be, and that a vote for anyone but them would be allowing Gordon Brown to stay in power. Labour's scare campaign centred around David Cameron actually being Margeret Thatcher in disguise and that if the Tories got into power it would mean disaster for the working classes whilst they favoured their rich and powerful friends, and again that a vote for anyone but Labour was a vote for Thatcher Cameron. The BNP naturally claimed that they were the only party to prevent Britain becoming a Muslim country overrun by immigrants. The big focus of all parties' scare campaigns was the economy. The Conservatives said Labour had already ruined the economy and would just get the country more into debt and crippled under massive interest payments. Labour said the Tories would turn around their good work to begin the economic recovery and there would be another recession. The Liberal Democrats said that both parties were wrong and that their way was the best and most fair way to solve the economic problems. The minor parties said some things too, but nobody listened to them.
  • Winston Churchill, prior to the 1945 election, claimed that Labour "would have to fall back on some form of a Gestapo" if elected. Labour won by a landslide.
  • Then there was the 2005 UK Independence Party (or UKIP) Party Political Broadcast - a Euro Sceptic party - which portrayed the EU as a Giant Blue Octopus attacking London with its Combat Tentacles. This was coupled with ominous threats about how the EU was damaging British culture.


United States

  • The 1964 "Daisy" ad for Lyndon B Johnson's campaign is probably one of the most famous -- and effective -- examples, and is often credited with Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. It depicted a little girl picking off the pedals of a daisy, counting each one, before transitioning to the countdown for a nuclear test... with a man's voice with an accent surprisingly similar to Goldwater's ... and then a mushroom cloud.

 Johnson: These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.

Announcer: Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.

  • In the 2006 gubernatorial elections of Massachusetts, GOP incumbent Kerry Healey blasted Democratic challenger Deval Patrick, a defense lawyer, for reversing the death sentence against a convicted killer. "Her approach is to protect the victims and Deval Patrick's approach is always to protect convicted criminals." This is, however, a defense attorney's job. The ads blew up in Healey's face and Deval won by a landslide.
"If we make the wrong choice [electing Kerry], then the danger is that we'll get hit again [as in 9/11] -- that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States."
Dick Cheney, 2004
"However they put it, the Democrat (sic) approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses"
George W. Bush, October 30, 2006
"And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror. They would retreat and declare defeat. And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child's play. About this, I have no doubt."
Mitt Romney, February 7, 2008
"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country. This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America."
Sarah Palin, October 2008
  • The infamous "Willie Horton" ad which Bush the Elder used to destroy Dukakis in 1988.
  • Ted Kennedy's "Robert Bork's America" speech was a scare campaign unto itself, albeit one specifically targeted at defeating a Supreme Court nominee in the Senate.
  • The 2008 presidential race was pretty much all about this. John McCain would like us to know that Barack Obama is an inexperienced loser who will let terrorists destroy America, while Obama would like to tell us how McCain would drive America straight into a ditch with Bush's same old policies.
    • The "Three AM" ads put out by Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. And there was much lampooning to follow, most notably from the little girl in the Stock Footage the ad used, who at that point was seventeen years old and a supporter of Obama.
    • Senatorial candidates had their fair share of ridiculous attack ads as well. Elizabeth Dole's "Kay Hagan took godless money--what did she promise in return" ad backfired and led to North Carolina becoming the first state to have two female Senators from different political parties, and the first time since the 50s that no Bush or Dole has been in the government.
  • Chicago gives us a great example. In 1983, the city Democratic Party nominated Harold Washington as their candidate for mayor. Normally, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to being elected mayor of Chicago, but there was one problem: Washington was black. This gave the Republican challenger Bernard Epton an opportunity to run a series of racist attack ads telling people to vote for him "before it's too late." Even though Washington won the election, his time in office was marked by racially-charged battles with the City Council, in which a white bloc of 28 councilmen (with one additional token Latino) consistently voted against everything he tried to do, until a Federal court decision ruled that district lines had been intentionally drawn with the purpose of shutting out minorities.
    • These ads were parodied in the Chris Rock film Head of State, in which he plays a guy who runs for President. The challenger runs an ad saying, "This is what will happen if Mays Gilliam [Chris Rock's character] is elected President," then showing the White House getting blown up.
    • The really sad thing (revealed in an episode of This American Life) is that Epton was actually a fairly liberal Republican, certainly on race issues (he had been part of the civil rights marches and so on), and was extremely uncomfortable with the tone of his campaign. He was so not racist, in fact, that he apparently didn't catch that "before it's too late" was a dog-whistle phrase until it had already become the campaign's main slogan.
  • In the 2005 Virginia Gubernatorial Election, the Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore ran an ad with a woman saying that Kilgore's opponent (Tim Kaine) wouldn't have favored giving Adolf Hitler the death penalty. As if that wasn't enough, the ad was released on Yom Kippur. It backfired, badly.
  • The infamous "white hands" ad from Jesse Helms's succesful 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, featuring a close-up shot of two (white) hands holding a letter and crumpling it as a narrator says "You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority."
  • This trope is Older Than Television: in the early part of the 20th century corporations that employed child labor in factories and sweatshops campaigned mercilessly against laws prohibiting child labor, with such arguments as "If this law passes, Mr. Smith won't be able to pay Johnny to mow his lawn!"
  • During Andrew Jackson's second term re-election in 1832, his opponents would invent stories about his actions as President to discourage voters. The funniest of these was the (completely fictional) story about Jackson kidnapping an American woman and sending her as a whore to the Russian Czar as a gift.
    • Jackson attracted a lot of this sort of thing: the election of 1828 saw the issuing of the Coffin Handbills, which accused Jackson of murdering his own soldiers, random people in Nashville, and numerous Native Americans (on which, cf. his record as President). There's a reproduction of one of them here.
  • There was an accusation that President John Adams had sent General Charles C. Pinckney to England to procure four women, two for each of them. Adams laughed off the accusation, declaring, "If this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."
  • Carly Fiorina's truly bizarre Demon Sheep Commercial, where she compares moderate Republican California Senate Primary rival Tom Campbell to a "Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" for his moderate fiscal policy. Fair enough, but the guy in a sheep costume with the glowing red Terminator eyes was probably a step too far. Fiorina would win the primary, but lose the main election.
  • In one of the more infamous moments of the 2002 election season, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss ran an ad against contender Max Cleland - a Vietnam war veteran who'd lost three limbs to a grenade - questioning his dedication to national security... and framing his photo between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. He was called out by both Democrats and Republicans for the ad, but still won the election.
  • The infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad from the 2010 Kentucky Senate election between Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and Tea Party Face of the Band Rand Paul. The most notable claim Conway puts forth in this ad against Paul is that Paul tied up a young woman and physically forced her to worship his supposed deity of choice, Aqua Buddha. Naturally, it backfired horribly, as when the election came round, Paul curb stomped Conway in the polls, with the ad being cited as one of the primary reasons why.
  • Taliban Dan. It didn't work.


Other Countries

  • There was an infamous Swedish election in the immediate post-war era which had the Conservative party post slogans like. "A vote for the Worker's Party will lead to the destruction of liberty, the savagery of children and the annihilation of traditional values."
  • The Weimar Republic election campaigns were practically built on this trope - from long-nosed money grubbing Jews to bloated and evil capitalists, everyone was doing it. In the case of anti-Nazi campaigns, it was even true.
  • The Mexican elections of 2006 featured the conservative PAN saying "Vote for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his populist politics will bring Mexico to a new era of crisis, devaluation, unemployment, hunger, starvation, crime, and poverty!"; the liberal PRD eventually fired back, saying "Felipe Calderón is a corrupt bastard who plunged Mexico into crisis in 1994, giving later his brother-in-law a suspicious job!". However, since the Mexican people as of 2008 are still scared of economical crisis after three of them in 10 years (1982, 1985 and 1994), the PAN finally won, and Felipe Calderón is currently the president in office.
  • The Russian presidential election of 1996 featured a TV ad portraying the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with a flute leading various food products into the sea. The implication was: "If the Communists win, they'll return the country to the times of product shortage." It was dropped in the second round, when it became clear that Yeltsin would win.
  • The Chilean referendum of 1988 to determine if General Augusto Pinochet would continue in power featured televised periods in which both options, "Yes" or "No", could make their arguments. The "Yes" campaign featured many clips not only mocking the "No" campaign, but also demonizing the option itself, claiming that "A victory of the "No" option will mean the return of the Popular Unity (UP), and eventually a return to a crisis period". Despite this, the "No" option won, and none of this occurred.
  • The New Zealand general election of 1975 featured a television advert by the National Party over the governing Labour Party's superannuation scheme. It claimed that the money generated by the scheme would be enough to buy every business, then every farm, and then eventually, the whole country. "And you know what that's called, don't you?" The though of a communist state was enough to scare the country to vote National. The new government proceeded to cancel the superannuation scheme, a decision that has since been criticised as one of the worst economic decisions a New Zealand government ever made.
  • The infamous Doberman 1996 campaign from the Spanish Socialist Party, which had been ruling for 14 straight years by then. To the point that, decades later, scare campigns are still known in Spain as "Doberman Campaigns". It did work, somewhat- the Socialists recovered from a 15-point deficit and lost by barely 300,000 votes.

Advertisements

  • These aren't always political per se--for instance, an ads Newsweek accusing PETA of terrorism. Incidentally, no information was given as to who was paying for the ad, namely the Center for Consumer Freedom, an anti-regulatory Astroturf lobbying organization for the fast food, meat and tobacco industries.
  • Broadview (formerly Brinks) have run home security ads in which attractive young women are alone at home -- suddenly a man breaks in, and as the alarm goes off the bolts, while on the phone is the reassuring voice of a Broadview representative. Subtext? If you don't have Broadview Home Security installed, you, or your wife, or your daughter will be raped.
    • In a Saturday Night Live Parody Commercial of same, it showed a woman who men were constantly kicking down her door to rape - her boyfriend, her father, her grandfather, the spokesperson of the ad...
  • Just about every Global Warming commercial ever. One involves children running while the floor cracks ending with a little girl hanging on to a tree as the floor crumbles below her. We won't even talk about the movies discussing this subject.
  • Allstate's "I'm Mayhem" commercials, where each commercial has the same suit-wearing man claim to be something that'll either cause you to have an accident or directly damage your car. He then says that if you don't have Allstate insurance, you're pretty much screwed.
    • A lot of car insurance commercials use similar tactics, though they're not always as comedic.
  • As would seem natural, plenty of advertisements for firearms, ammo, self-defense courses and the like are centered around trying to scare you into buying their products. Most often showing pictures of ski-mask clad bandits attempting to break into a home or the steely-eyed homeowners going for or using whatever skill is being advertised.
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