Editor's note: Adam Hanft writes about American culture, politics and branding strategies for The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Slate and others. He is the founder of Hanft Projects, a strategic consulting firm.
(CNN) -- Billions of dollars poured into political ads this election cycle, and they weren't just negative commercials, or attack ads, but messages of searing personal indictment. The question is: Did they work?
There's no easy answer, but there's a nuanced one. Under the right circumstances -- where these attack missiles connect with a pre-existing (even a latent) negative perception -- they can be devastatingly effective. Repetition makes them work even better.
This is a phenomenon called the "illusory truth effect" and holds that hearing something multiple times increases its perception of accuracy.
But negative ads that don't attach to a "negative" in this way, or ads that are perceived as unfair because they take a blip out of context or because they simply cross a line of fairness in the minds of voters -- just don't stick.
Let's take a look at how 2010's attack ads set their opponents back ... or just backfired.
"Aqua Buddha" drowns Jack Conway: Tea Party candidate Rand Paul defeated Conway and will be headed from Kentucky to the U.S. Senate. At the end of September, the polls showed a tossup. But in the closing days, Conway launched a controversial spot that battered Paul for his alleged collegiate membership in a secret society that called Christianity a "hoax," claimed he tied up a woman and made her bow down to "Aqua Buddha."
It was so screamingly over the top that it said more about Conway's desperation than Paul's college indiscretions. (And the ad actually elicited some sympathy from members of the vast but hitherto unrecognized Indiscretion Party.)
Paul responded quickly, with a counterattack that might be the first political ad ever to quote from the Ninth Commandment with the weighty phrase "Bear False Witness."
Turning a fortune into a failure: Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her own money trying to defeat Jerry Brown for the California governorship, making hers the most expensive statewide campaign of all time. Spot after spot relentlessly attacked Brown from every possible angle, mocking his years as governor and as a mayor and reaching back to every "Gov. Moonbeam" imprint. But they were so vicious, personal and mean-spirited that they backfired.
Steven Glaser from Brown's campaign said, "In more than 30 years of working on campaigns, I have never seen a candidate's ads have such a negative effect on that same candidate."
This spot is exemplary. It actually reminded people that they found Brown's honest contrariness rather refreshing. And effective.
Meanwhile, Brown came up with a brilliant bit of archival work -- a spot named "Echo" that matched Whitman's words, nearly verbatim, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It wasn't mean-spirited or personal, it was very Zen: political warfare by quoting.
Scrubbed and elected: John Hickenlooper, successful Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado and former mayor of Denver, went negative against negative. He refused to run any attack ads and instead ran what he called a "Clean Campaign."
In this ad, he says that he hates negative advertising and that "... every time I see one I feel like I need to take a shower." Which he does, walking fully clothed in the shower eight times. His irreverent and even gimmicky approach was able to defuse the anger -- one of the only successful examples of that strategy this fall.
Money mania goes down: Despite outspending Richard Blumenthal by 16-1 and despite his considerable problems related to lying about military service in Vietnam, Linda McMahon went up in flames in the Connecticut Senate race. Her barrage of negative advertising failed to dent Blumenthal, the long-term attorney general, largely because of spots such as this. These two badly cast women dishing and dissing about Blumenthal are so fake, and the dialogue so epically stilted, that it actually made him close to likable.
The tax man cometh -- to Washington: Fred Davis was the Republican hit man of the 2010 election, responsible for the now-famous Carly Fiorina demon sheep ad and the disembodied Barbara Boxer-head video. Fiorina went down, as did Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. This O'Donnell ad uses the dramatic theater, explosive attacks and cultural parodies that are Davis' hallmarks. Here, working within the conceit of a movie preview, Delaware Democrat Chris Coons is portrayed as a threatening, horror-film figure. And when the ominous voice-over warns us to "Hide your lights cause he's taxin' everything out here," it's an unmistakable reference to the virally explosive "Bed Intruder" video.
It's a bizarre spot, and rather than making O'Donnell a different kind of candidate, it amplified her perceived strangeness.
Fiorina's CEO problem: Boxer was vulnerable as a senator, but California is a deeply blue state, and her opponent, Fiorina -- the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard -- had a harsh remoteness about her that didn't connect emotionally with voters. So when Boxer went after Fiorina's role as an callous outsourcer, someone who ran her company with with PowerPoint ethics, it resonated. It's a textbook case of the surgical negative.
A dangerous dance: Wharton graduate and Iraqi veteran Sean Bielat made things a bit tough for Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, but Bielat wasn't able to pull a Scott Brown and win in a formidable Democratic state. This negative ad, "The Barney Shuffle," didn't help. It's a mash-up that takes Frank's head, grafts it onto a disco-dancing, hip-swiveling body and sets it to a disco-inflected soundtrack composed of Barney-isms such as "I'm for welfare, you're not" and "a bubble ... a bubble ... I voted to raise taxes." Amusing? In a meretricious way. Mildly homophobic? Many thought so. Under the right set of circumstances, this might have been Frank's exit night. But trivializing him wasn't going to send him home.
Russ the driller? This is where my theory that negative only sticks if there's something for it to stick to gets ... nuanced. Russ Feingold, a long-term environmentalist in the Senate, was accused by Ron Johnson of slinging mud when he said that Johnson supported drilling in the Great Lakes. Johnson's attack ad insists that it was Feingold who voted against protecting them. PolitiFact said that Feingold voted against the bill for other reasons than the drilling ban and described the spot as "barely true." But no matter. Feingold went down. It wasn't solely because of this ad, but the fact that a Republican felt he could credibly attack Feingold on an issue he was so long identified with shows what a wave election this was.
Obama's favorite soon-to-be former congressman: First-term Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia was the active beneficiary of successive gusts of President Obama's retail campaigning, so it's a particular White House embarrassment that he went down. Perriello's campaign against Robert Hurt was intensely negative on both sides, with tons of activist money flowing in. That means Perriello did his fair share of bashing, which is why this spot came across as disingenuous. Worse, by sticking himself inside a life-size roly-poly toy, Perriello made himself seem weak and vulnerable.
No Angles left: It was the most captivating campaign of them all: the charisma-challenged Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, against a polarizing and unpredictable Tea Party candidate, Sharron Angle, with a reputation for some unusual views, who shunned the media. The negative ads flooded the state, with Angle bashing Reid for Nevada's loss of jobs and its unemployment rate -- the highest in the nation -- along with his immigration stance. (It was a good year for the residual checks of actors who could play swarthy Mexicans in the ads.)
Reid kept battering Angle for being outside the mainstream. This spot, which accused her of running from the media -- literally -- and of being "pathological" must be the first time a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was ever used in an attack ad.
At the end of the long day, Reid won the attack-and-respond air war, convincing enough people that his boring predictability was at least more reliable than Angle's dangerous improvisation.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam Hanft.