05/03/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'If You Vote For My Opponent, Everyone Will Die': A Historical Compendium Of Fearful Political Ads

This week, the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death inspired the Obama campaign to release an ad, titled "One Chance," in which former President Bill Clinton extols President Barack Obama's decision to order the raid that ended in bin Laden's successful dispatch from our mortal plane.

Through most of the ad, Clinton speaks rather frankly about the political costs that Obama would have faced if something had gone wrong. This isn't a bad thing to note: We'd be living in a different world today if this incursion into Pakistan had been a failure. But the reason the ad ended up making news was for the speculative turn the ad takes midway through, where it asks, "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?"

The decision to include this counterfactual moment has generated all sorts of hullabaloo and argument. Arianna Huffington, this site's namesake, called the ad "despicable," for taking this tack.

Defenders of the ad point to the fact that Romney's previous statements on the matter -- also included in the ad -- underpin the very case they're attempting to make. The Romney campaign, perhaps ingloriously, slagged former President Jimmy Carter in an attempt to defend itself.

The bottom line is that the ad has generated a bit of ugliness, and it can be argued that had the Romney criticism been omitted, it might have been a more effective ad, thematically speaking.

But would it have won a news cycle? Probably not. And that was kind of the point. By suggesting that Romney, faced with the same choice, might have opted to do something else -- something else that was potentially deadly to Americans, the ad implies -- the Obama campaign got the chance to troll the entire media. And the fact that it generated controversy and criticism is, essentially, beside the point.

Mark McKinnon, an adviser for President George W. Bush, knows the game that's being played here: "When Democrats went crazy about our 9/11 ad in 2004, all they did was bring more attention to the message we were trying to communicate. Which is precisely the trap Republicans are falling into today."

Here's the thing, though: This is a very old game in American politics. Accusing your opponent in an electoral campaign of being the sort of person whose decisions would lead to many, many American deaths is a tradition as old as campaign ads themselves.

Let us all take a trip back into yesteryear, to review again all of the times we were told that a vote for the other guy would be fatal. (And perhaps we should also remember that no matter who we voted for, Americans continued to die, pointlessly, in various idiotic misadventures anyway!)

(Political advertising buffs are encouraged to check out the Museum of the Moving Image's The Living Room Candidate, which includes an outstanding archive of televised political ads from 1952 to 2008.)

A History Of Terrifying Campaign Ads

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