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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Kerry Stays Positive, Avoids Specifics

His latest ad is all generalities, no facts.


A Kerry ad released June 1 offers a string of glittering general statements without a single specific factual claim. It has Kerry saying, for example, “We’re a country of the future….we’re a country of optimists, we’re the can-do people.” You won’t catch us disputing that opinion.

Such ads have become typical of Kerry advertising since he wrapped up the Democratic nomination. A new analysis shows only 27% of Kerry’s ads have attacked Bush by name, while 75% of Bush’s ads have attacked Kerry. Kerry campaign officials say their high-road ads are working and Bush’s are backfiring.


There aren’t any factual claims to analyze in this ad, but it’s worth a look for what it says about the current tone of the 2004 campaign.

Kerry’s ads have mostly been like this one, all positive with no mention of Bush. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that an analysis done for the newspaper by the Campaign Media Analysis Group found that the Bush campaign has run ads saying negative things about Kerry 49,050 times — amounting to 75 percent of Bush’s campaign advertising. Kerry however has run negative ads against Bush 13,336 times — or just 27 percent of his total.

Kerry Ad: “Optimists”

Kerry: We’re a country of the future. . . we’re a country of optimists, we’re the can-do people.

Narrator: For John Kerry, a stronger America begins at home. Real plans to create jobs here, not overseas; lower health care costs; independence from Middle East oil.

And in the world, a strong military and strong alliances – to defeat terror.

America. Stronger at home. Respected in the world. John Kerry for President.

Kerry: I’m John Kerry and I approve this message.

 Some Empty Oratory

This latest ad is all oratory. It says for example that Kerry has “real plans to create jobs here, not overseas; lower health care costs; independence from Middle East oil.” Kerry has indeed put forth proposals in all those areas, though it’s a matter of opinion whether they would work or not.

Even the generalizing can tell voters something useful about the candidate. By stating that America should be “respected in the world” the ad conveys some sense that Kerry is stating he’d put more emphasis on diplomacy and repairing frayed relations with US allies, for example.

But some statements are so vague as to give voters practically no sense of what Kerry actually would do if elected. For example, to help achieve what the ad calls “independence from Middle East oil,” Kerry has proposed “A Plan to Use Hydrogen Throughout the Nation By 2020.” That “plan” contains few specifics, and is not terribly different from President Bush’s own proposals to fund research on hydrogen-powered vehicles. In any case it’s highly dubious whether hydrogen will be a practical fuel for motorists by the time this year’s newborns reach driving age, according to a study issued last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

Since Kerry’s ad avoids specifics, he can’t be accused of false statements. The worst we can say is that some of the ad’s statements — like hydrogen itself — are lighter than air.

Are They Working?

It’s no secret why Kerry is sticking with positive ads – his campaign aides say they’re working and that Bush’s mostly negative ads have been backfiring. And in fact, the National Annenberg Election Survey issued a report last week concluding that Kerry’s standing has improved significantly in 20 “battleground states” in which both campaigns have been putting their advertising dollars. Between late April and the third week of May, Kerry’s “favorable” rating improved to 44% of adults in those states, up eight percentage points. Meanwhile Bush’s “favorable” rating in the battleground states declined to 44%, going down by four percentage points. “It’s very clear the advertising has been a tremendous boon,” Kerry pollster Mark Mellman told reporters during a conference call June 1. The Annenberg poll showed no real change in the Bush or Kerry favorable ratings in states where ads were not appearing, pointing to a conclusion that the ads, and not other factors, are the most likely cause of Kerry’s improved showing.

(The Annenberg data includes responses from 800 people, and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.)



Watch Kerry Ad: “Optimists”


Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei, “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity; Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks,” Washington Post 31 May 2004; A1.

Nancy Stauffer, “Hydrogen vehicle won’t be viable soon, study says,” Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 5 March 2003.

Adam Clymer, “Kerry’s Standing Improves in Battleground States After His Positive TV Ads, Annenberg Data Show,” news release, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 26 May 2004.