There's a chapter in the fabulous parenting book, "Nurture Shock," that talks about bullying. Contrary to the stereotype, most bullies are not the anti-social loners of Columbine myth (if you're interested, you should read the gripping and thoughtful account, "Columbine"), but rather they're usually at those at the top of the social food chain. Why? The reason is pretty simple actually, if you're socially intelligent enough to climb to the top of the social ladder, you're probably able to read people enough to know there weak points. In other words, bullies tend to be high in emotional intelligence, social intelligence, whatever you want to call it. Ok, now you're wondering what this has to do with political ad making? I think good negative ads are a lot like those real bullies at the top of the social food chain. Anyone can make a negative ad. Negative ads are both hard and easy: Easy because there's almost no bigger cliche in politics than the negative ad -- dark grainy picture, somber music, the picture of your opponent next to some CG like, "Stood with X [pick the symbol of the other side, over the years, it's been Gingrich, Clinton, Bush, Kerry, these days it's Obama & Pelosi] to do Y [pass health care, give a big tax break to the wealthy, run up deficits, cut social security...]."
Negative ads are hard though, hard to get right, hard to find the right balance, between information (which is really a MacGuffin) and emotion, between framing your opponent in the way that you want and letting the viewer get to that place on their own (so they feel like it was their own idea). Between making the viewer not like your opponent, but not hate you too much. So many fine lines are there. It's easy to make a hammer, though often what's needed is a scalpel.
A lot like the bullies of "Nurtureshock," its not about punches and physical attack, but more about emotional and intellectual manipulation. You need to have a feel for it, otherwise you're apt to make an ad like this one:
This ad feels like amateur hour. Buck feels stiff and is obviously reading (uncomfortably) off a prompter. Compare this ad with the one from the other day with the horse racing. Which one would you rather watch? Which one makes it's point? Heck, even the North Carolina rocking chair ad shows a certain negative IQ so to speak, here's another ad that just feels a negative tone deaf to me:
Or this one from Jack Conway against Rand Paul.
I like how he uses Paul's quote, that's a nice way to validate your statement with the view, but at the end of the day, I just don't believe it, in spite of the quote.
Knowing how far to push and when to draw the line in an attack is as important as knowing which attack to make. This ad seems to go over both lines.