When advertising goes on the attack

Through the early days of the federal election, there was no shortage of information and opinion about issues ranging from the economy, environment, health care, military commitments and foreign aid. This is all in addition to the only topic most people are actually talking about: Whether we needed another trip to the polls at all.

Issues with a clear-cut relationship to Catholic teaching concerning the right to life or other social-justice matters have not loomed large so far. Nevertheless, as regular readers of The Register know, these issues did emerge in the most recent Parliament and remain in the background.  

In the media, political advertising started before the election was even called, and much of it is being described as “attack” advertising. Early in the campaigns, the ads have not been vicious but they merit the “attack” label because they project negative portrayals of party leaders rather than focussing on parties or policies. Despite charges that one party or another is more prone to this type of advertising, the reality is they all do it. As the campaign heats up, expect ads to become more strident and more personal.

Most of today’s attack ads are mild by historical standards. Canada's first Prime Minister,  John A. Macdonald, had to contend with cartoons instructing his followers how to solicit bribes. In Britain, Disraeli faced attacks with anti-Semitic overtones. But what hasn't changed over the years is that, by emphasizing the personal rather than the policy, parties count on attack ads to influence voters. Then again, they might backfire. As Bernard Gauthier, head of the Ottawa public relations firm Delta Media, told CTV’s Canada AM on March 25, attack ads run the risk of alienating voters if they are perceived as "hitting below the belt." Yet the major political parties are prepared to take that risk.

"What's interesting is that when you start off in an election campaign you never know where that line is: where that belt is that you can't hit below," Gauthier said. As we’ve seen in past campaigns, voters will react strongly when the line is crossed.

For Canadians, the best-known such incident was the Conservative ads in 1993 that appeared to mock Jean Chretien’s Bell’s palsy. Outrage followed and the PC Party was hurt badly in the polls. There was similar backlash in 2006 to a Liberal Party attack ad (never aired, but leaked to the media) that suggested Stephen Harper would use the armed forces to police major cities. Its effect was to diminish the believability of the Liberal's other ads.

The impact of less sensational ads is more difficult to evaluate. People say they don’t like ads that attack leaders, yet sometimes they respond to them. Much depends on whether viewers have strong politics of their own, in which case the perception of an unfair attack or hidden agenda will never be far behind.

Non-party organizations that place ads for third parties often discover that politically informed people are very adept at identifying agendas in even the most neutral advertising. I have placed a number of third-party ads on behalf of several organizations over the years and I can’t recall a single instance where there weren’t complaints about “close ties to the Conservatives,” “obvious Liberal shill” or “the NDP must have written it.” In one case, the critics were talking about the same ad.

In politics, people see what they want to see, particularly if they are politically involved on a partisan basis. That doesn’t mean advertising is ineffective. But it does mean that the influence is likely to be strongest on people who vote but do not have strong political leanings, or are undecided about particular issues in one specific election. Those who are already strongly committed tend to see ads as affirming their opinions or for proof that the other side is wrong.

Most pundits are predicting more attack ads this time around, possibly because there are few strong issues for candidates to discuss. But whether theses ads will affect the outcome is another question altogether.
Read 23744 times Last modified on April 6, 2011
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Joanne McGarry

Joanne McGarry is the former Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.


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