You don't want to comfort yourself in optimistic denial, because YES attack ads can and have worked in the past. However, it is equally suspect to just assume the impact, particularly using flawed points of references. Assuming adequate response, a sense of how one MUST deal with attacks, changes the analysis. John Kerry, or more rightly, the Kerry team was destroyed by attack ads, but you have to put them in context. John Kerry did ZIP in response, sat on his hands while his opponents pummeled him relentlessly. When you gauge the effectiveness, just as important as the attack, the way in which the targets actions assisted the narrative. If you were to write an essay on "what not to do" in response to negative campaigning, the John Kerry example would dominate your footnotes.
In Canada, Stephane Dion has now become synonymous with attack ads, and for obvious reasons his name keeps coming up in any discussion of these new negative ads. Again, assuming an adequate response from the Liberals, I'd like to point to a few reasons why the Dion comparison is flawed, in many ways irrelevant to the current situation.
I don't want to throw Mr. Dion under the bus here, but let's keep it real. The simple fact, everything surrounding Dion supported the "weak" premise. Let's not forget, that in the months following the initial attacks, Dion's leadership oozed weakness. The Liberals were hiding behind curtains during crucial votes, in every respect a TOOTHLESS tiger, a dynamic that reinforced itself time and time again. There was a reason the NDP referred to themselves as the "real opposition", further evidence of legitimate attempts to exploit the practical examples of Liberal impotence. This dynamic had nothing to do with the attack ads, but what's important here, the forever embarrassing abstaining routine in Parliament SUPPORTED the frame the Conservatives were selling. At every turn, this sense that Harper was getting the better of Dion, any bluster was squashed and the conclusion highlighted a sense of weakness. The ads found convenient real world example, our behaviour actually supported.
After Dion won the 2006 convention, it didn't take long for "anonymous" Liberals to emerge, and a very real sense that Dion didn't enjoy widespread support within his own party. Rather than rehash the reasons, what's relevant here, the way that particular reality undermined Dion's stature. Dion is "weak", not just a Conservative concept but one that displayed itself daily through the various actions of his own party. You have the Conservatives pushing the idea, but then people are bombarded with evidence that the notion is true, in this case a self-inflicted confirmation.
When Dion took the airwaves, made appearances, there is no question his demeanour and delivery were such that it became problematic. Dion wasn't particularly strong in QP, wasn't resonating, wasn't inspiring, wasn't projecting a sense of STRENGTH. Factor in awkward English, and it's not much of a stretch to see how people could make certain connections. While I think Dion would have made a great leader, there really wasn't much evidence to support real leadership characteristics, that extrapolated beyond partisan wants. Translation, Dion looked WEAK. Dion looked WEAK at the 2006 convention, easily the WORST speech I've ever heard from a politician (and to be honest, not much changed in 2009). All these independent facts had nothing to do with attack ads, our presentation volunteered reaffirmation.
I don't see much use in comparing what happened to Dion with what could happen to Ignatieff. The circumstances are so much different, as well as the lessons learned, that the analogy falls apart at almost every turn. The perception of Harper in 2009 is quite different that it was when he first went after the Liberals. Ignatieff enjoys a united party, better equipped, in a much better position to look a PM in waiting and project a strong presentation. Dion was handicapped on some many scores, none of which are really present now. Attack ads work, but the two classic historical examples both show that the targets after the fact actions and reactions, are almost as important as the opponents message. Each environment is unique, how said attacks are accepted a chief factor, everything put together makes any "template" somewhat meaningless.
Moving forward, apart from the lesson that you must respond, I see little need to reference Dion to highlight effectiveness, because none of the variables overlap. It's for this reason that I hesitate to just assume that attack ads work here, using Dion as evidence, because to be blunt, everything surrounding Ignatieff, all the factors in play, are more opposite than analogous. If, in the next few months, everything Ignatieff does happens to feed what the Conservatives are selling, I'll reaccess, but I just don't see it happening at the moment.