The dirty little secret behind attack ads

The Liberal ads are an appeal to the reptile part of our brains, the ‘fight or flight’ part, where panic, rage and fear reside


The dirty little secret behind attack ads

Even the words are creepy. “Cover-up. A description far more familiar to other countries. Until now.” But as we all know, it’s the sounds and imagery that make an attack ad. “When questions arose [ominous, metallic hum; barbed wire graphic] about what he and his government knew about torture in Afghanistan [clanging noise; more barbed wire], Stephen Harper shut down Parliament. Why doesn’t he want to face Parliament? [Militaristic snare drum; bell tolls.] What does Stephen Harper know that he doesn’t want other Canadians to know?”

I give up. His age? The combination to his gym locker? We’re never told. But we’re plainly invited to assume the worst. All is insinuation, right down to the sneer in the announcer’s voice.

Now, this is hardly the most outstanding example, as these things go. And there is a bedrock of truth to it. Stephen Harper did shut down Parliament. That does raise questions about what he knows, but won’t say, about “torture in Afghanistan.” But that wasn’t enough for the Liberals, who made the ad. It never is.

It was not enough merely to criticize the government for proroguing (“shut down”) Parliament. An appeal had rather to be made to the reptile part of our brains, the “fight or flight” part, where panic, rage, and fear reside. That’s what attack ads aim for: not to stir up debate, but to make debate redundant.

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with politicians criticizing one another—“going negative,” in the vernacular. But it matters how you go about it: whether your aim is to engage the public, or inflame them.

Those in the game offer two standard defences. One, the other guys started it. This is invariably true: whatever sin one party may have committed, it can always find a precedent in its opponents. Which is handy, since it means neither side need justify its actions in its own right, but only by way of the other’s.

And the second? Simple: they work. This is presented, not as an amusing irony, a comment on man’s fallen nature, but as a justification. Oh, they work, you say? Well, in that case I withdraw my objections.

So often has this been repeated that it has become accepted wisdom. Say what you will about attack ads, journalists will observe, but they work. Really? Then why do they have to keep making new ones? Elections generally have losers as well as winners. Somebody’s ads must not be working.

In fact, most of them don’t. Political parties come up with dozens of ads in the course of a campaign. Some work. Most fail. You just try something, and see.

This is the dirty little secret of the trade, forgotten in all the breathless coverage of the “rainmakers” and their strategies for “moving the numbers.” There’s a saying in Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Meaning nobody knows what makes a hit picture. You just try something, and see.

What no one seems to want to consider is this: maybe people in politics don’t know anything, either. Maybe they keep churning out the same stale ads, with the same hackneyed scripts—“Stephen Harper. What’s his real agenda?”—not because they work, but because they can’t think of anything else.

Is it possible that an entire profession could get it wrong? Happens all the time. One of the “revelations” to come out of the financial crisis is how many people on Wall Street were operating on autopilot. They made their millions doing the same thing, in the same way, until they discovered that what they were doing was crazy. The same is true of doctors: studies show incidence patterns for many procedures, such as C-sections, bear no relationship to therapeutic value or need. It’s all just habit, custom and fad.

In the world outside politics, people understand the value of reputation. To be persuasive to others, it helps to have a reputation as a trustworthy, sensible person. Reputation is accumulated by repeated exposures through time. So we are obliged to be conscious of how our actions, advantageous as they may seem at any given moment, will be received later.

Political people, by contrast, appear to operate in a permanent year zero, without past or future. It is as if they never expect to run into the voters again. Attack ads and other sorts of bad behaviour, in consequence, are treated as if they were all upside. If they work, great. If they don’t, hey, no cost.

But in fact, there is a cost, even if they do “work”: a cost in reputation. Having attacked the Conservatives so many times before in such overheated terms, the Liberals find the public are disinclined to believe them, now that there is something of a real wolf to report.

Nor is the cost limited to one party or the other. The whole profession is degraded, to the point that people tune out of politics altogether. The comparison has been made before: if the airlines ran attack ads savaging each other’s safety records, nobody would fly on any of them.

But now let’s take a contrary example. One of the really great things newspapers and magazines do, for all our many, many faults, is to publish letters to the editor. Often these are extremely critical: a daily or weekly recounting of all the things we got wrong. Yet the effect, far from harming our credibility, is to enhance it.

Suppose Air Canada ran ads that said: here’s how many of our planes were late yesterday. And here’s what we’re doing to improve on that performance. Would that hurt their credibility, or help it? And if political parties did the same?


The dirty little secret behind attack ads

  1. Just is just the continuation of the 'hidden agenda' tact. Rather than develop actual policies, the LPC is still trying to find the hidden agenda – clearly there isn't one or the LPC is too inept to find out what it is – either way it is a useless activity for the LPC to be engaging in when they should be focusing on many, many other things – like what are their policies?

    By the time Parliament resumes (and essentially it is taking a 2 month break – big whoop), the budget is released and voted on – let's see if the Liberals and NDP are willing to risk an election. I doubt the Liberals are since they seem to be spending all their money on useless ads.

    • If there is an election it will be because Harper/Flaherty will put some kind of unacceptable poison pill in the budget and force the opposition to vote it down. If these current poll numbers stay where they are (remains to be seen) then the government will be leery of pulling a stunt like that.

      • Like the Political party subsidy that does Canadians want removed?

        • Do Canadians want them removed? Has that question been asked in a statistically accurate poll?

          • Yes, you still doubt my point?
            Page 3 of 9 Angus Reid Poll December 2, 2009


            You can run a Poll ANYTIME and it wil always suggest a cut in politicians benefits salary is a good idea. ( Have you ever heard some suggest they need more money or benefits?

          • Yes, you still doubt my point?
            Page 3 of 9 Angus Reid Poll December 2, 2009


            You can run a Poll ANYTIME and it wil always suggest a cut in politicians benefits salary is a good idea. ( Have you ever heard some suggest they need more money or benefits?

  2. Andrew, you seem to have forgotten who devolved the political situation to nothing more than nasty attack ads. Ok, there was the "soldiers in our streets" ad by the Liberals which went way too far. But, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are the kings of personal, negative, attacks ads even outside an election period. i hate that politics is reduced to this, don't get me wrong. I am one of those people who they don't work on. but, let's point the finger at who has really brought it down to a personal nasty level and who is keeping it there. at least these attack ads have a shred of truth to them, unlike that soldiers in the street ad and a whole host of personal attacks ads by the Conservatives against three Liberal leaders.

    • Agreed. The piece is about attack ads in general.

      • I don't remember you having this problem when the Conservatives were attacking Stephane Dion's leadership. And having re-read your article you're wrong; your article is about the Liberal "attack ad" about the Conservatives.

        • That's funny, I was wondering the same durn thing.

        • Oh lord. You don't remember. Did you look? Do any of you, ever, with your "I don't remembers"? Here is one example, easily discovered on the "Internet": http://andrewcoyne.com/2007/04/when-politician-sa… Took quite a bit of flak for it, as I recall, from partisan Tories, who accused me of overlooking far worse from the Liberals…

          • *booms lowers* whoops.

            hey, thirty seconds of googling the intertubes is a lot to as for before accusations fly!

          • Andrew, people call you cynical, but when you try to rebut instinctive partisan slander by taking even a second out of your day to search through your old archives, you're showing a belief that you'll be able to change these people's minds with facts and data. People who view pretty much every phoneme of prose in terms of whether it's for or against their chosen "team".

            And that's almost charmingly optimistic of you.

          • I did read those. IN one article you mention that Tories are taking aim at Dion, but it is merely to showcase the Conservative Media Headquarters and in the other you welcome Tory partisans and gently rib them. You're still a hack and I do watch you on TV. You're usually overshadowed by the talented Chantal Hebert. She has this unusual ability to report both sides of a story. Learn from her.

          • No one who took the time to read either piece could possibly characterize them as you have. You are bang on about Chantal, though.

          • I'm glad we agree. Let's not fight anymore.

          • Good idea. I feel terrible about calling you a hack.

          • In neither case did you dissect the rationale behind the ads against Dion like you did here. You certainly didn't make any reference to appeals to the sympathetic nervous system. You are being disingenuous once again.

          • Yes, and I didn't write about the Liberal ad, as I did about the Tories', that it "plays on the worst possible emotions, in the most divisive possible way. It is simply outrageous, all the more so for the sly and deceptive way in which it is inserted." I did not call the Liberal ad, as I did the Tories', "manipulative, inflammatory and tendentious." And I did not accuse Liberal partisans, as I did their Tory counterparts, of "a blithe sophistry, or an automaton-like literal-mindedness, that in either case I cannot begin to fathom."
            However, I am quite willing to do so now.

          • but I don't expect you to remember that, even now that I've told you.

            You can tell that Coyne has been patiently rebutting whiny partisans for decades. He speaks from experience.

          • I must confess I was unaware of your blog at the time AC. Unfortunatley, it has become accepted wisdom that attack ads work. But, I don't recall such blatant attacks against a leader of the opposition, outside a campaign period, as those from the current govt. IMHO, they crossed the line.

          • Attack ads (or even just ads) outside of a campaign is at least in part due to the minority government circumstance. Minority government means you have to be defining yourself and the opposition all the time — and always ready for an election. My view is that ALL parties will use negative ads to their advantage — why not? Some ads, however, are just more convincing than others. If CPC's ad against Dion was effective, it is because it contained some element of truth that struck a chord with voters.

          • So obviously the LPC attack ad struck a chord as well as it too contained an element of truth – perhaps more so.

          • To add to the reason for the success of the ads against Dion and even Ignatief: those "elements of truth" had been ignored by most of the media. The ads forced the media to report on that which they previously ignored. Namely that that Dion was "not a leader" and Ignatief was "just visiting" The media was, and mostly still is, negligent by ignoring these Liberal flaws so the conservatives are forced to spend their contributors money to tell the Liberal truth.

          • I guess Preston Manning and Stockwell Day were fair game, they were a butt kicking Reform and upstart Alliance…how dare they run against the ruling party.

          • No I agree you attack all attack ads rather quickly. I still think they work.

          • How about in the three years since these two items? How about last year's 'just visiting' for a relevant comparison?

          • Putting down your readers makes you appear smaller than you look on the tube!

          • Andrew is only putting down those readers who don't read. I have found that he is gracious in admitting errors when he actually makes them.

          • Some things are timeless. From the comments section of the second link, almost 3 years ago:

            Paul Wells:

            Boy, biff's an idiot, isn't he. And Charles: when Coyne links to examples of his outrage at Liberal ads, and you say he's only angry when Tories do it…well, how perfectly biff-like of you.

    • You obviously were not around for the Liberal onslaught on Reform candidates in the mid nineties. They were "Nazis", "fundamentalist Christians", didn't share Canadian Values (TM). Deb Grey was abused by the Liberals without conscience. Chretien used it on Day and his associates and Martin tried to use it on Harper but with less success the second time. This goes back to confederation politics which I don't expect you were around for.

      • Except Day *is* a fundamentalist Christian and has explicitly stated he believes the earth is only 6000 years old. And his family has long been in close association with neo-Nazi defender Doug Christie. Deb Grey was made fun of by the Liberals because she went back on her promise not to take an MPs pension so was seen to be two faced about it.

  3. An obvious question, for me — where was this opinion piece when the Harper gang was so blatantly and dishonestly attacking their opponents?

    • Indeed. Inquiring minds want to know …

      • you walked into that one didn't you? Coyne is playing chess….oh christ, you know the rest

  4. Well written, Andrew. Cogent, persuasive argument. What's missing, however, is an allusion to the very great likelihood that the Tories (with their numbers falling and a whopping big bank balance) are going to retaliate in a big way. I haven't seen any reporting on this, but I'll bet that we will see all kinds of Tory advertising (along with feel-good Government of Canada ads) during the Olympic coverage. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Tories bought every ad they could for the broadcast of the men's hockey final.
    In short: these Liberal ads aren't the end of the story. The Tories are going to fight back. Hard. Perhaps you will write a similar commentary when they do.

    • I agree with Andrew. The Liberal ads are shocking. They don't know where to draw the line. Let's not try to suggest Nazi tactics, military in the streets, hidden agendas as well as the assassination of Harper. They are horrible ads. I've never seen a Tory add like these. There is more to fear from the lack of judgement of the Liberals .

  5. Since when is it an attack ad when facts are told? Is getting a message out that disagrees with you an attack? As for the reptilian part of the brain, every watch a TV commercial and then end up at the store for that sale? Hear how they make it sound great, how sincere they try and come across, how their tone is nowhere like the actual salesperson at the store? Rather than attacking the ad why not put into perspective that when truths are put out on the airwaves for the public at large to know that is good and when lies and spins are put out on the airwaves for the public at large to be mislead then that is bad. Was a coalition in Parliament last year wrong, illegal, not allowable, un-democratic and were Canadians not lied to in the Conservative rhetoric about traitors and deals made with seperatistrs that did nothing to help the electorate understand in democratically elected representatives. Were the Conservative ads right to stress that we did NOT vote for Dion, or Layton and therefore they could not be sworn in as PM if Parliament had No Confidence in Harper and the Conservatives? Where was your wisdom then when the Conservatives were feeding on the airwaves to the public misleading statements and out and out lies? Why then were those ads not analysed under your critique about our reptillian brains? Great that you pick and choose your examples but your analysis about these Prorogation ads which try to inform and enlighten people and crystalize the issue without misleading statements misses the mark substantially! Prorogation was blatantly mis-used by Harper in 2008 and again now in 2009. As for this latest Prorogation Harper could have Adjourned Parliament and kept the bills on the order papers and gained a break through the Olympics and come back in March with a better undertsanding of what his government needed to do about the financial structural deficit hole they dug. For you to be in your line of work and not be able to tell the difference between an ad that has spin and one that has non-spin is something I’m glad you let the public know!

      • How can so many people be so brainless. These ads are suggesting some kind of intrigue or conspiracy. Harper is just trying to get somthing done without the irrational partisan screaming of the Liberals. Just listening to them on a daily basis triggers the reptilian part of anyones brain.

  6. The tories attacks were more relevant and they worked, they made a point to showcase Ignatieff as someone who doesnt connect with canada or canadians and they were right! And even though, I strongly disagree with Harper with proroguing parliament, these adds are so stupid are like little kindergarten kids trying to get even, what the liberals need to do is to change leaders ASAP because Ignatieff wont be elected and Harper will still be in no matter what.

    • On the contrary. they created an image of someone who does not connect an image which exists only in . I may or may not vote for him but I have seen him speak and in person he connects at least as much as Mr. Harper. In fact his life experience is so much more varied than Harper's (who after all has never had a job outside politics or special interest groups) that he probably has a better appreciation of what its like to have a real job.

  7. Andrew, can you refresh my memory. What did you write about the Conservative attack ads when they went after Michael Ignatieff?

    There seems to be a big difference between the Liberal and the Conservative ads. The Liberals have questioned Harper's motivations behind something he did – proroguing Parliament. The Conservative attack ads were an ad hominem smear – going after Mr. Ignatieff for who he is or was, according to them.

    That's quite a difference.

    • I was wondering if I was the only one who noticed that difference. There is a factual basis for the Liberal attack since Mr. Harper did prorogue without any apparent justification other than to cover his but. The Conservative "just visiting" ads had no such basis in fact that I can find. Ignatieff to my knowledge never has expressed an intention to return to teaching at Harvard. Indeed the stoicism with which he has put up with the gratuitous attacks prove that whatever the attack ads say about him, the opposite of what they claim is probably true.

  8. I'm glad the liberals are finally diversifying beyond their base…it's a well known fact that the "reptile part of our brains" is bigger amongst conservative folk

  9. "Those in the game offer two standard defences. One, the other guys started it. This is invariably true: whatever sin one party may have committed, it can always find a precedent in its opponents. Which is handy, since it means neither side need justify its actions in its own right, but only by way of the other's."

    • Perhaps you could remind me of the similarly scathing articles you wrote condemning the other guys' attack ads?

      • I suggest you read Coyne's comments above. He even posted links!

  10. The commenters do realise that by using his one weekly print contribution to criticise Liberal ads, with helpful pictures of them, Coyne is publicising them and their argument, right?

    • PS. I was assuming Gwyn & others (Tribe?) were being cute by pretending to misunderstand satire of previous piece, so as to give more play, but judging from these comments, maybe not. Hard to tell difference between people playing dumb & being…excessively pedestrian.

      • "Excessively pedestrian" is an excessively polite way to put it. ;-)

  11. Andrew, great article. I always value your take on things. I hate these attack ads but compared with Ignatieff's Narnia commercials, these seem to be giving Liberals a little more hope (of course, public opinion on this matter has helped them the most).

    I also just wanted to say thanks for responding to some of the comments. I've noticed you do that a lot and I know it's appreciated by many of your readers. This is why I keep coming back to Macleans.ca

  12. Attack ads are probably more useless than some of the positive ads that the parties put out during a regular election campaign. We, the public ,have no faith in them and are really just as distracted by a good positive ad promising the world and heaven as well. The ads that I would like to see are ads describing the policies of the parties and explaining in clear and concise words how we will benefit from those policies. Otherwise 'put your money where your mouth is".
    Politics must change if we are to accept what the different parties stand for. I have been a Liberal, active and non active for over 55 years but because of that party's lack of policy and leadership to promote policy. I have now become reclusive and cannot support any party. I am as confused as the next guy as to how I will cast my ballot in the next federal election and for sure it would not be for the Harper led conservative party.

  13. I can't agree more – raise the debate..engage Canadians and god knows what might happen!!!!!!!

    Better Candidates? Real debate on issues?

  14. Dear Andrew,

    How long (word count please) was your editorial on the last series of Conservative attack ads?
    Have you noticed that people are catching on to the propaganda promoting voter apathy – paint all potical parties with the same brush to protect one party?

  15. Andrew, I certainly remember the Liberal ads about Nazis, soldiers in the streets and so on, just as I remember Tory Puffins pooping and so on. I wrote Dion when he was Leader asking him not to get dragged down into the gutter by Harper, but, unfortunately, the baser instinct in Canadians and especially the media, demonstrates that attack ads have some effect and so parties keep at it. The difference for me between the two parties is that Harper appealed to the ethnicist in many Canadians by laughing at Dion's English difficulties and the manner in which he stirred up Canadians, well mostly Albertans, against Quebec last year because of the potential coalition. He has an awful character: mean, divisive and, as he has demonstrated twice now, a cowardly bent. With any luck, he is simply visiting 24 Sussex.

    • You actually see how Dion's english difficulties were treated as being different than how Manning's french was treated? If anything, Manning was attacked much more viciously.

  16. Emotional advertising is the most memorable, thus the most effective.

    • I don't think anyone doubts that. The question is, effective at *doing what* exactly — what's being remembered?

      Also, it's possible to make something emotional without making it negative. Most companies are able to make emotionally-resonant ads without suggesting their competitors are dangerous and evil — as Coyne pointed out.

      • I've been trying to think of any "positive" emotions identified with by large segments of the population when considering shutting down Parliament to avoid democratic scrutiny but have come up dry. Any ideas?

        • A good place to start would be taking the time to engage with citizens in more open and genuine ways, re: discussing how to improve the culture and the system so things like this don't happen again.

          Commercial marketing is shifting towards openness, engagement, direct communication, co-creation, etc, and we're seeing that even simple gestures to make people feel recognized and involved can substantially increase loyalty and advocacy.

          People aren't just joining the Facebook thing because they're angry (and/or lazy), they're joining it to get immediate feedback (albeit the most superficial kind) and feel like they're a part of something. It won't amount to much in itself — but imagine if there was some organization and charisma backing it up…

          It's sadly ironic that democratic politics — which is presumably about openness, engagement, etc — is moving the other direction.

          We also need to avoid that temptation to keep starting from "year zero" [quoting the piece] every time something new happens. People need to start building positive narratives, not just figuring out which populist nerve to target this week.

  17. Stephen is nerdy cool … Iggy is soooo menacing … Conservatives are good for bad times … Liberals can't be trusted any more Canadians are knee-jerk jerks … so obvious.

  18. Negative advertisements work only if they are part of an overall and comprehensive strategy that combines the themes that the "other guys" are bad while we "the good guys" are going to be "new" and "better."

    Rarely can this be done in one ad (the Mac vs PC ads are examples). Usually it has to be done in parallel ads, e.g. in 2005/06 campaign, the CPC's "Entitled to my Entitlements" ad (negative) along with "GST at 5%" ads (positive). The key is the comparison.

    The Just Visiting campaign was not negative or attack advertisements per se, it was "swift-boating." Ignatieff had said and done a lot of things in the past that Canadians were unaware of and that contradicted the impression he and the Liberal party were hoping to make. The effect was to put Ignatieff on the defensive and defeated his dream of wanting to appear "new" and "better."

    • The "just visiting" ads moved the polls so effectively because they filled a vacuum. The vacuum was the refusal of the mostly liberal media to scrutinize Ignatief. The MSM did not do their job so the Conservative had to spend their supporters money to give Canadian the truth.

  19. Arguing about who started it is worse than a waste of time (I'm not just talking about attack ads but the retreat from substance & integrity in general). Saying "they did it first" perpetuates the cycle of blame.

    Let's see who starts the cycle of respect(ability)… Till then they're all the same.

    • Yikes. It scares me to think that people actually think like this. It matters immensely who started it, at least to morality-based individuals. Was, say, Kuwait equally responsible for getting invaded by Iraq? Were the Jews equally responsible for the Holocaust? Guy A walks up to Guy B and starts punching him in the face for no reason, Guy B fights back; are they equally at fault? Of course not, you moral degenerate.

      "All the same"…that's an abdication of reason and morality, it makes me sick to my stomach that people like you infest my country.

      Canada: where "good judgment" is an oxymoron.

      • The appeal to nausea – there's the higher ground we should be aiming for.

      • Canyou clarify why it is so important to know who started using this type of negative advertising?

          • And Godwin goes off to cash yet another royalty cheque…

      • "it makes me sick to my stomach that people like you infest my country."

        Such a charmer.

        • a complete twat more like.

  20. Another rule to remember: the media will always decry "attack" ads from their unique societal position of virtue and truthiness. And they'll decry as weak and a mistake anyone that decides to run only positive or issue ads instead of "attack" ads. This is called balance.

    • They could refuse to carry them, if they really wanted to take a stand.

      • The liberals have been guilty of the minor offense of running attack ads, like pointing a gun at voters and firing it (Chretien election). While the Conservatives have committed the unpardonable, democracy crushing, dictatorial, warmongering threat to Canadian Values of running attack ads like using Ignatief's own words. The real problem is not partisan posters, rather it is partisan press that routinely apologizes for Liberals while attacking Conservative .

  21. So you guys watch the ads, eh?

    • Conservatives stopped watching the teevee in 1998, the nonstop portrayal of white men as boobs, Canadian Tire Guy being the most egregious example, being too much to bear.

      We download emergency stashes of reality teevee shows from The Pirate Bay for when a chick comes over.

      • That's funny. Aging lefty hippy chick here, feminist for eons, but that's kind of what happened to me and TV too — maybe a little later, but by now, I mean, who needs it?

  22. Oh, and I forgot to add : the intellect can and does often triumph over both emotions and instincts. 'Attack ads' don't kill debate, they stir it up. People are forced either to think things through and come to a different conclusion than what their emotions and instincts are telling them, or at the very least they are forced to rationalize their choices. To say otherwise, Coyne, is to characterize all electors as no better than beasts.

    • The reason most such ads don't work — did you even read the piece? — is precisely because the electorate are not beasts. It is the persistent tendency of the political class to treat them as such that I decry, not only because it is degrading, but because it is, contrary to the smirking assertions of those who profess to live in "the real world," ineffective.

      • Such ads do work. The "political class" knows this because they test the reactions on people before and after putting them into the public domain. Does anybody doubt that the Conservative ads against Dion were effective ? Can anybody disprove the effectiveness of PC ads against Dalton McGuinty in 1999 ? There are other examples. They don't keep doing the same thing over and over again for fun. They do it because it works.

        And people are not beasts because, despite appeals to their basic instincts, they are able to rise above such appeals and use their intellects to make 'rational' decisions (yeah, I know, 'rational', a whole other can of worms). But that doesn't mean that 'attacks ads' are any the less effective. It's just not a "see tiger, run like hell" reaction as you characterize it.

        I can't wait until the next round of Conservative 'attack ads' come out and all these things I have written here will be quoted back. Can't wait.

        • My quicky online survey:

          Pepsi or Coke?

          Ever Ready or Duracell?

          Micky D's or Burger King?

  23. Well, if this comment thread doesn’t illustrate at least one of Coyne’s points, I don’t know what will.

  24. It is strange that Harper has won two minority governments with the Liberals saying he has a hidden agenda he got more seats second time round,This scare tactic will never work so they should try and let
    Canadians know why they should be government.Dion actually scared the hell out of Canadians and Iffy is showing he is not the common guys choice he visits universities because he has nothing in common with the ordinary worker who could not afford higher education but paid for a lot of these so called intellectuals education through taxes

    • The Liberals saved themselves from defeat in 2004 with the Secret Agenda ads, so they were certainly effective at that time. However, by 2006 the electorate had a longer look at Harper and were less inclined to buy into that fear tactic (among the many other factors that led to the change in power). But when Harper does stuff like proroguing, there might be something to be said, tactically, in reminding the electorate of the secret agenda undercurrent. It may have legs yet.

      The complex reality is that Harper's secret agenda isn't so secret – he wants to make Canada conservative – yet his tactics, policy-wise, have been liberal in order to gain support and keep power since Canada is a liberal country. More effective ads might be, he has no integrity; but even then I'm not sure how much resonance that line would have with the public since they don't think any politician has integrity.

  25. Why this criticism now, Andrew? Yes both sides can blame the other side for starting the negative ads, but by voicing your criticism today you are effectively attacking the Liberals only. Considering Stephen Harper's track-record of nasty, personal, negative ads against his opponents, I find your column extremely unfair.

    • It really never stops, does it. Time to unpack another truckload of steak knives.

      • Has it ever occurred to you that you may be creating the demand?

  26. Attack ads, imported from the U.S. in a big way by Harper, are generally nasty & mean spirited but I think the Liberal ad in question is pretty tame in comparison to the personal attacks on Dion & Ignatieff of the Harper ads. The Libs had no choice but to fight back. This ad sticks to policy and is reasonably clever. I, for one, have to agree with it. I believe the Media generally has been seriously remiss and condescending to Canadians in assuming that they don’t care about the dismissal of Parliament & the reason for doing so – Harper’s dictatorial stonewalling on the Afghan detainee issue.

  27. This was buried in a reply to Mulletaur, but I'll repost it, as a general q:

    My quicky online survey:

    Pepsi or Coke?

    Ever Ready or Duracell?

    Micky D's or Burger King?

    The buried point is that on head to head competition, you won't often see two major companies going negative for a few reasons – they are probably held to a higher legal standard than political parties (truth in advertising), and you don't want to lose market share to other segments (ie drive Pepsi and Coke drinkers go to fruit drinks, bottled water, beer etc.)

    Going negative in politics drives down market share (less voter turn out and apathy) and attracts uncreative people – hence the formula words, music and images AC has picked up on and is rightly criticising.

    • "Going negative in politics drives down market share (less voter turn out and apathy) … "

      Suppressing your opponent's vote is a perfectly valid electoral strategy. One imagines that people who joined a genuine grassroots movement known as the Reform Party with the expectation of genuine democratic reform will not be very happy with the Proroguey Parliament and Harper's arrogation of every last scintilla of political power to himself. Harper brought this on himself in every sense. The Liberal ads simply remind people of Harper's moral bankruptcy in this regard.

      If you want better politics, you need better politicians. But don't expect them to play by the rules of the good Marquess.

      • If you want better politics, you need better politicians.

        Chicken and egg…

  28. Andrew, I think there's a contradiction, or a need for clarification between your assertion that attack ads "don't work" and the idea that political strategists don't know what they're doing. I think attack ads do work, but since the strategists generally don't understand when or why, they get it wrong more than they get it right.

    It's a classic collective action problem in the style of the prisoner's dilemma. If attacking works, especially when the opponent doesn't, then there's no incentive to stop, and only an incentive for the non-attacker to start countering. We end up with the third least optimal solution of both sides attacking.

    • To reconcile my first paragraph with my second… Attack ads work when more effective than or in the absence of an opposing attack. Therefore, when both sides attack and they're of similar quality (good or bad), the effect is lost and the attack ad does indeed "not work," or at least only works in making both parties unappealing (the third optimal result).

  29. I for one welcome these Liberal ads. The more the better. Keep them coming, Spend, spend, spend on production and distribution.

    They may work or not, I don't know. But one result will be that the LPC will have reduced their war chest, thus making them less able to fight a snap election. And also making the Liberals more compromised in what actions they can take in response to any hardball moves by Harper (as for example, poison pills in Flaherty's budget).

  30. Gar:

    You criticize Ignatieff for visiting student at universities? How dumb can you be? These students represent our future and we want them to be not only informed but, unlike too many Canadians, voters. The Liberals have good education policies whereas Harper has none. Man, you must be from Alberta with that head in the sand thinking,.

    • Thomas

      I am a proud Canadian living in Alberta, my head is not in the sand and i am pretty well informed. Informed enough to know that the liberals have yet to bring forward any policies and even when the do, they are questionable at best.

      All the best, from the west

  31. Andrew is required by his employment responsibilities to write articles – opinion pieces to be exact. This one is not among what is usually excellent work.

    It is a bit odd though for some pundits, perhaps not Andrew, to at once criticize the Liberals – Dion and Iggy – for not "fighting' back when attacked relentlessly by Harper and the Conservatives, to now argue that to construct attack ads to support or create a narrative about an Harper, is to be, well, criticized.
    How does one, in this case, a Party, work through all this white noise from the pundits – answer is, not a hell of a lot, nor should we necessary worry about what they say.
    If we accept that politics is a tough game, a point often made by Andrew, then why should we, and Andrew included, be surprised that a political party would seek to gain advantage over an opponent by using negative ads. My god, the Liberals got eviscerated last fall for running ads showing Iggy in the forest.

    • My god, the Liberals got eviscerated last fall for running ads showing Iggy in the forest.

      That was because the Narnia ads sucked, to put it bluntly. Ignatieff was pushing the "we can do better" line without showing how. Nobody was convinced by them. The reason those ads got a failing grade was not because they were insufficiently negative, but because Ignatieff's positive message was cheesy, laden with platitudes and woefully lacking in substance.

    • Thank you. I wanted to mention that but did not find the words. You're dammed if you do and damned if you don't.

  32. I am not sure why everyone makes such a big deal out of attack ads. The LPC should go after PMSH if they think they have found a weakness. Ditto for the CPC with the Dion and MI attack ads. The culture of politics will never change, no matter how much one wishes for a more civilized atmosphere (see the American experience with Hope and Change).

    Personally, I think the prorogation attack ads are a waste of money since the media has thoroughly covered the scandal. OTOH, the CPC attack ads on LPC leaders were conveying new information. Until those ads were run, the voters had only been exposed to positive portraits of Dion and MI.

    • Yep, the last few polls confirm your opinion.

      • It appears that both LCBennett and novagardener are right. The prorogation attack ads are a waste of time (the moment of truth will be when Parliament re-opens for the budget) and the proof is the Ignatieff and Liberal poll numbers are not going up.

        For me, the fluctuation in the polls are not due to the "anti-prorogation" crisis, but to the fact that Ignatieff has clearly and unequivocally stated (twice) that he will not try to force an election in 2010. When Ignatieff threatens an election, Harper goes up. When Ignatieff puts his tail between his legs and backs off, Harper goes down. It's not rocket science.

        And Harper has an ace in reserve. When Liberals threaten election, Harper pulls out the coalition bogeyman negative ads. Canadians were much, much more incensed about the coalition than they ever will be over something as banal as prorogation. Then Ignatieff's numbers plummet until he backs off. Simple.

        AC predicted late last year on At Issue that there would be no election until 2012. He's right.

        • Bang on Orval. You're like the most famous Orval … Wright!

          • I'd say it's self deluding rubbish, no kind of analysis at all. When Harper's # go up it's because Ignatieff wont call an election; when Harper's # down it's because Ignatieff's gives the public what they want – more Harper. I guess it explains the core philosophy of the conbots…Harper's never wrong; Harper's never responsible for anything – even a 15pt drop in his #…and the polls of course…nothing matters but them, no one cares should be their mantra.

          • Well, to be honest, it is a combination of "Harper's never wrong" and Ignatieff's never right. The LPC's biggest problem is not Harper but MI. The man has shown nothing but recycled ideas from the 70's, chronic foot in mouth disease and daily flip-flops. Who would of thought that the Liberal elites could put their minds together and dig up a guy that is both "Not a Leader" and "Mr.Dithers".

          • I'm no real fan of Ignatieffs, but in his defense most opposition leaders look awful at some point or other…Chretien and Harper being good examples, it's a tough job in it's own way. Let's see if Ignatieff has the capacity to learn from his mistakes. My understanding is that only a small segment of the liberal's braintrust elected to persue Ignatieff…i believe it was the Martin crowd…a bunch of proven losers in my opinion…but what do i know? I just read other peoples opinions like most others here.

    • "OTOH, the CPC attack ads on LPC leaders were conveying new information. Until those ads were run, the voters had only been exposed to positive portraits of Dion and MI"

      This is only partly true. Releasing some kind of TPs on Ignatieff's long absence is for instance fine. However IMHO the not a leader and the just visting adds were below the belt. Both men were new leaders, neither had a track record. Pointing out deficiencies in you opponents after a period of time [ preferably during the election] are certainly ok. What happened was an obvious attempt to define an opponent negatively before any kind of record to comment on has been established…it's lowball, and will come back to haunt us all eventually. Those who cheer this on are responsible for the further degrading of our polity.

      • The media's shameless cheerleading for Dion and MI required the CPC to run negative ads. The voters deserved to know that the man the MSM had already crowned the future PM had been gone for 30 years. Many people had no idea he had been absent for that long and found it to be a rather important bit of information. When Harper became leader, his past was thoroughly examined. The degradation of our polity has quite a few accomplices.

        • There have always been ways of releasing info to friendly media sources concerning your opponent, particularly if you're the sitting govt…your excuse for attack adds outside of the writ are frankly self serving and pathetic – not to mention paranoid – more media is always biased to the libs. It's perfectly possible to get your narrative out without attack adds. Be a man and admit it was purely for political advantage…i don't dispute the degradation has more than a few liberal finger prints on it. How that excuses current Tory excesses is baffling.

          • You might want to reread my first post, I don't think there is anything wrong with attacks ads or using a political advantage, regardless of the party. So, no excuses offered or required. The "be a man" thing is irrelevant nonsense.

            The CPC's bank account was overflowing, the media /was/is incredibly biased and the new Liberal leaders were getting a free ride. The CPC had both the money and the ability to bring a different message to voters, so they did it. Why rely on a media middleman when you can go directly to your target group. After all, the media had the same info as the CPC but they choose to ignore MI's 30 year absence. If you aren't going to do a job properly then someone has to do it for you.

            The LPC and their supporters are just PO'ed because:
            -they had less money and couldn't afford to defend themselves or run their own attack ads.
            -the attack ads against the LPC leaders were successful.

            BTW, I am not of the opinion that the public needs to be protected from political ads. Voters can judge the quality and content for themselves. If things go to far, "soldiers in the streets" or mocking JC'c disability, the public will clearly let the political parties know they are being obnoxious.

          • And the CPC's take on Ignatieff was in any balanced or fair…leave the analysis to the media…your assertion that they are[still] incredibilly biased is partisan nonesense. What's more i suspect you know it.

  33. Actually, Inkless, Andrew is one of our finest columnists. I pretty much read only him, Paul Wells and Lawrence Martin for intelligent comment. I think you are confusing Andrew with that sycophant Mansbridge, who really should just go, standing or sitting.

    • Actually, Inkless, Andrew is one of our finest columnists. I pretty much read only him, Paul Wells…

      You do know who Inkless is, don't you? Please say you do.

  34. Andrew Coyne: Slagged as a blind partisan by blind partisans since 1985.

    • Gotta hand it to Wells, that was a good one.

    • Thirty five years of talking politics and I don't think I've ever felt the need to call someone "partisan". It's a uniquely Canadian obsession, they don't do that elsewhere. Ever listen to Lowell Green? He hangs up on callers, usually women, who begin their spiel with "I'm nonpartisan but…". Do you know why? It's because in 40 years of broadcasting he's seen enough and he knows that in nearly every case they are LiberalSocialistSeparatist coalition supporters lying through their teeth.

      • Of course, I'm sure you say that as a non partisan.

      • I was impressed, really, until I saw last year's recipient. Sorry. To be fair though, I felt the same way about the Nobel Peace Prize.

      • Dot, just as an aside, checked list, excellent folk, with one notable exception, that diminishes the rest, esp. the recipients immediately before and after. Coyne 94, Simpson 96, and in between the two, MOSCOVITZ 95?! I say again, MOSCOVITZ?! Dot, did you ever hear his reports in the Mulroney years, esp. those re. Mulroney? Dude was whack, and I mean w-hack! Made Duffster seem unbiased by comparison. Of course, they both used to often visit 24 Sussex (together even), socially, for têtes-à-têtes…quite a few media did…no-one remembers that stuff anymore, of course.

    • Repetition; the most effective way to get a point across.

  35. Very thoughtful, Andrew and thanks. As someone who's been in some of these politico "Do we run the negative ad or not" discussions, I actually often think about long-term implications.

    In terms of "why" the profession continues to do these things, part of it actually is not that we are on auto pilot but the opposite — in the heat and thrust of a campaign, producing attacks on your opponent can be exhilarating, and a release of some of the kinetic energy of the campaign. I'm not making excuses, I'm just saying well from a human point of view, it can be fun.

    That said, I do worry about negative implications. One of them, it seems to me, is that the more we continue to rely on these kind of foreboding, negative ads we not only attack our opponents, but I think we have over time been a part of the problem in terms of disengaging the public. If all sides are busy making ads that basically devalues/debases others and their motives, I think it adds to the general publics' sense that politicians are out of touch, and that we aren't actually about anything positive — whether it's policy, or a real critique of the other side.

    For a long time, I was of the school of negative politicking. My experience with the Mayoral election here in Vancouver, where we had a candidate Gregor Robertson who doesn't personally believe in or like this kind of thing, changed my mine. We did manage in his and Vision Vancouver's campaign to be more about our positive agenda for change, and guess what? We had more volunteers than we sometimes new what to do with by election day. It doesn't mean we didn't critique our opponents, just that attacking them in vague ways like this was not our priority.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  36. Canadian media wouldn't know an attack ad if it bit them in their (wide) behind. Remember in the 2006 election when they attacked Harper for running so-called attack ads, and even Warren Kinsella, Liberal author of a book on kicking ass in politics, said that they weren't attack ads and that the media was full of it?

    Your magazine has reached a new low with this torture business Coyne; I read Colvin's affidavit and the basis for his complaints are 1) super secret sources he, a journalism degree holder, refuses to reveal, and 2) four (4) Taliban who told him they were tortured, as is Taliban SOP. The memos he sent warned of a RISK of torture "and/or" actual torture, a phrase so weaselly that it puts his good faith in question. So we've got 16 or so memos warning about the risk of torture but no actual torture, and the complaint of four (4) Taliban, who Colvin takes at their word. And then there is Colvin himself, a unionized bureaucrat in a bureaucracy which massively opposes the Harper gov't and has a pattern and history of leaking damaging info to the Liberal media. Yeah, we the public have a right to be skeptical about whether this guy is just trying to stick it to the Tories, who he and his union buddies have a financial self-interest in defeating. Maybe if the PS acted more professionally and less politically over the past 3 years we might believe Colvin.

    It was the Liberal government that signed the agreement to hand over detainees to the Afghan government, it was a Liberal government that invaded and occupied Afghanistan, and it was a Liberal media that supported this occupation for years until the Conservatives came into power. Y'all might've stepped in a bear trap with this one.

    • Stop the bull and lets see who did what when and how this current government dealt with the detainee issue. Silencing the issue makes us all look like cowards and we know that we Canadians are not cowards but we mistakenly vote them into government from time to time!!

      Ads that read true will be worth Canadian value(s). This current liberal ad reads truthful and appears to be resonating with the voting public. We can handle the truth when pundits scribble baloney now that we realize how ridiculous they have been.

  37. I'm probably not a good judge of the issues you raised, but I presume the jury changes over time, and the award is based upon a lengthy body of work over an extended period of time on many topics of public interest and import.

    • Doubtless. I can't recall if Moscovitz was in Ottawa for CBC for entire 1984-1993+ period, but he was there for most of it, and was terrible all the time he was there. Whatever he did before may have been good, but the Ottawa period was atrocious. Maybe he was overcompensating for his own Liberalism? I don't want to be cynical but I remember thinking when he got appointed to BDC by Chrétien that it was to get him out of Ottawa. But maybe it was to reward a Liberal who hid his spots by seeming aggressively pro-Tory & anti-Lib? Maybe it was the Peter principle? And maybe he was just a good appointment and did a good job at BDC. I'd have to go back and check. But his reports, as parliamentary reporter for CBC, were so slanted pro-Mulroney, it angers me even now. One expects fair play from all public actors, journalists included, but of course some have pre-existing biases that are encouraged by slant of their organisations. And some, columnists, editorialists, are paid to have and give opinions. But a reporter, as Moscovitz was, is supposed to aspire to disinterested subjectivity, if not objectivity. And a reporter for a public broadcaster, even more so. And Moscovitz either didn't, couldn't or wouldn't. And if you think about the issues in question then, free trade, Meech & Charlottetown, his behaviour was truly shocking. He wasn't torquing municipal coverage of garbage disposal, but national coverage of existential issues for country. Anyway, those were strange days. It was because of such behaviour that Frank was born in that time, and survived for so long. Its backbone was internal media info, leaked by media, who were its most avid readers. Pity it's gone, though Ottawa journos are glad. Needed as much as ever, now. Every ecosystem needs its jackals,

      • That reads like a negative ad. :)

  38. Thanks for providing this Andrew – I had no success when I tried to Google. My apologies – I did see that At Issue Panel, but forgot about it. Seeing it in print has more impact.

    I take exception to being characterized as a partisan whiner if the discussion really is about the 'dirty little secret of attack ads' generally because it seems to me that the example you provide to make your case today relates to something that really happened, the implications of which many Canadians may not have been aware of, while some other attack ads are purely personal and often irrelevant. But then I could be just nitpicking.

    • Well my apologies for going off on you. But there have been at least a half a dozen commenter making this same silly point, without doing their homework. Which would still be a silly point, even if I hadn't been critical of the Tory ads when they came out.

      The point of the piece wasn't to slam the Liberals. It was to talk about attack ads in general: the Liberal ad was just the news tag, the entry point for the discussion. You'll notice I stop talking about the Liberal ad a quarter of the way in.

      But people are so obsessed with partisan score-keeping that they ignore the issue altogether, and simply dissect in partisan terms: whose ads are worse, who's getting rougher treatment from the media etc. Partisanship is a poison that clouds the mind. It is, unfortunately, one that a good many commenters around here seem to have inhaled.

      • No harm done.

        I take your point about the Liberal ad being a starting point, and it seems fair enough on the surface of it. But it did seem to me that this ad might be considered more of a 'negative' ad than an 'attack' ad. And no, I don't think that's a distinction without a difference for the reasons I stated.

        I concur with your take on the partisan score-keeping on this forum and others, but take it all with a grain of salt – the good with the bad as it were. Before regular folks like myself had an opportunity to express our pleasure/displeasure with the politics in this country, we had to be content with nodding/shaking our heads in silence. So I do want to thank you and others who provide us with a place to vent.

  39. Andrew's last paragraph is incredibly astute. It begs the question as to why consumer-advertising / political-campaigns / etc. are so truth-adverse? Do they fail to find the organizational payoff in truth or does it date back to child psychology and the many formative years we spent concealing fact from our parents?

    Either way, this oversight is bizarre?

    For example, the first rule of sales is to develop trust with your buyer. Not superficial trust. Not asking about their kids to pretend you care. Rather, discussing their business and figuring out how you can actually be of service to them and their objectives. From this (genuine) trust a mutually-beneficial relationship is formed for life. From that starting point (and only from that starting point) transperency becomes an asset rather than a liability.

    It is beyond me then, why the highest paid communication strategists in Canada are so conspicuously unaware of these basic principle of human interaction?

    But as to whether such ideas can be found in popular culture, I would like to reference three movies:
    (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulworth (dumb but interesting premise)
    (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Distinguished_Ge… (a classic)
    (3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Being_There (subtly brilliant)

    However, I am still curious to get Andrew's feedback on the point made by "guest,"
    Liberal attack ads critiquing content of government's decisions,
    Conservative attack ads critiquing personal life of Ignatieff (ad hominem).

    Is not AD HOMINEM an utterly heinous crime if you wish to have a mature and formal debate about the facts?

    • it's not ad hominem, it's fact.

      • Fact?? You own the patent do you? You're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts…remember that one do you?

  40. "Suppose Air Canada ran ads that said: here's how many of our planes were late yesterday. And here's what we're doing to improve on that performance. Would that hurt their credibility, or help it? And if political parties did the same"

    But Mr Coyne that would mean treating us like adults; that would mean the politicians have some faith in the process itself. Let me know when that happy day arrives, wont you?
    'Trust us"!…. Isn't that the politician's lament…and how bout us? Why don't you trust us, the citizenry once in a while? But that would mean taking a risk…and that's not something, despite opinin to the contrary, that politicians like to do really. They all want to win,but they fear to lose even more.
    Fear…it's all i see in the modern politician…fear of losing…
    They have no faith in us, and more and more, we have no faith in them.

    • I agree with what you are saying! These tawkin heads like Mr Coyne insult all of us with their opinions that somehow read "I am friends with those in power!"

      • I'm not attacking Coyne here at all.

    • Why don't you trust us…the citizenry…excuse the lack of clarity. i refer to the politician's lack of trust…not ACs.

  41. YA you will never get it Coyne yer demeanor has really deterioated not enough adulation hunnhh.

    I give up. His age? The combination to his gym locker? We're never told. But we're plainly invited to assume the worst. All is insinuation, right down to the sneer in the announcer's voice.

    Yupp you will never get it even when sometimes i see a bright light shining in yer skull..but then all goes dimm alas hmmm…

  42. In George Orwell's "Animal Farm", the dictator pig Napoleon and his propaganda minister Squealer used "attack ad" techniques, such as the warning "You don't want Jones (the expelled farmer) to come back, do you?" whenever the animals complained about the pig-elite's policies. Orwell was satirizing the use of negative propaganda in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It's terribly disappointing that democracies are embracing the propaganda techniques of totalitarian states.

  43. Although I would not be willing to identify myself as either small or large "C" conservative, I did vote for Harpers team in the last 2 elections. I have also voted for the Liberals in the past.
    I am not against the opposition using this opportunity to point out to Canadians that Harper and his team are avoiding criticism by shutting down parliament. Obviously true.
    If I was giving advice to Harper when this thing started, I would have told him he should say, "Yes its a mistake we made. We should have changed the policy enacted by the previous government sooner"
    This inability of Harper's to admit a mistake is eventually going to be his undoing, and if the opposition had a believable leader it would be sooner rather than later.
    One of the things that he could learn from his fellow Albertan, Ralph Klein is to humbly admit his mistakes and get on with it. I believe that was one of the things that made Ralph endearing to the people of Alberta

  44. Suppose Air Canada ran ads that said: here's how many of our planes were late yesterday. And here's what we're doing to improve on that performance. Would that hurt their credibility, or help it? And if political parties did the same?



  45. The really sad part, people used to enter politics for the noble profession it was – trying to help your country & its peoples. Nowadays, politicians quickly discover that the first casualty of their chosen profession is the truth. The second discovery is that their democracy is NOT of the people, for the people & by the people. Instead, it's of the party, for the party & by the party. So now we get the third discovery. Politics is really about retaining party power & the benefits of pensions & paycheques because you might have to get a real job if you don't tow the party line. The fourth discovery is that their talents & experience are useless because all parties are controlled by a cabal of non elected back-room know-it-alls whose only talents are how to portray the other parties in the worst possible manner, no matter how beneficial their ideas might be for the nation (can't have them looking good). Ergo, attack ads! I'm getting really sick of this hare-brained & pathetic version of democracy & the incessant waste of money!!!! I'm going back to watching the Olympics where the true Canadian virtues of quiet confidence, decency, respect, & determination push athletes to the best they can perform !!!!

  46. I really am quite surprised that NOBODY asked the Conservative Government where exactly they got the footage of Justin Trudeau which was used in their ongoing attack ad campaign? Huffington Post and CTV have already made statements confirming that the video footage being used is being used without consent,permission or licence by the registered owners under Canadian copyright law.
    If I used pirated or stolen footage of Stephen Harper,edited out of context, implied a slanderous or libelous intent,and then produced and broadcasted the aforementioned hypothetical footage. The conservative regime of the day would most certainly have had me sued to death in a heartbeat.

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