OTTAWA – Justin Trudeau’s decision in 2011 to stage a mock strip-tease in the name of charity proves he’s not fit to be prime minister, the Conservatives suggested Monday in their first volley of attack ads against the newly elected Liberal leader.
How Trudeau chooses to respond to the not-unexpected attacks — if at all — will be what provides an indication of his political acumen, marketing and political science experts suggest.
Trudeau has already suggested that he doesn’t intend to dignify the Conservative offensive with a response, but that’s a strategy that could backfire, said marketing expert Allan Bonner.
After all, Canadians don’t expect their leaders to shy away from a fight.
“If you have no response to an attack, what are you going to be doing for Canadians?” he asked. “Being a punching bag?”
The Conservatives set up the framework for their campaign against Trudeau three weeks before he was voted in as the party’s new leader, establishing a website that’s home to a suite of ads, links and pleas for money.
The ads began appearing on television with hours of the Sunday night announcement that Trudeau had won the leadership; by mid-day Monday, thousands more people had seen them online.
They show footage taken from a 2011 bachelor-auction fundraiser in which Trudeau is seen dancing on a stage and suggestively removing his shirt, while playful music tinkles in the background.
One ad contrasts his record with that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, while a second recounts his alleged perspective on Quebec.
Trudeau said Monday he found the ads awkward and a source of bemusement.
“I’ve had a microphone in front of my face since the age I was about four or five years old,” he said.
“So there’s an awful lot of things that they’re going to try and bring up and put out. And what I’ve heard across the country is Canadians are tired of that bullying.”
Still, that didn’t prevent the Liberals from turning the attacks to their advantage: by day’s end, the party was using the ads to try to pry Canadian wallets open even wider.
“They’ve seen what we can do and they’re desperately trying to drown us out with the childish, food-fight politics,” one fundraising email read. “We need to move past that — donate $5 or more now and stand up to these guys.”
Appearing to criticize Trudeau’s charitable efforts did draw criticism, including from the event organizers.
“We feel (Trudeau) should be applauded for his support of a serious health issue that affects 3.4 million Canadians,” the Canadian Liver Foundation wrote on its Twitter account.
The issue doesn’t matter, the Tories countered.
“We believe Justin Trudeau’s eagerness to perform a strip-tease, regardless of the venue or putative cause, says something about his judgment,” said Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey.
Indeed, the point of the ads is to weaken the Trudeau brand, said Alex Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University in St, John’s, N.L.
“This comes through in many ways: mention of being born with a famous name, the visuals of a sexy fashion show, the snickering style of the announcer, the use of merry-go-round background music, and the choice of a Tinkerbell-like moving font and sound in the closing moments,” Marland said.
It’s similar in style to what the Tories did with past Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, in both cases tagging them with the suggestion they weren’t up to the job.
“Like previous efforts to frame Ignatieff and Dion, these ads are directed at leadership traits instead of policies,” Rose said.
While the ads are clearly negative, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Rose said.
“If they are directed at making sharp distinctions between policy positions, they might help electors. These do not. They are ad hominem and personal.”
In particular, Rose flagged the quotes about Quebec, which were taken from an interview Trudeau gave to CTV in 1999.
“Quebecers are better than the rest of Canada, because, you know, we’re Quebecers or whatever,” a young Trudeau is shown as saying. The narrator describes the comment as a display of poor judgment.
The full CTV segment, a link to which quickly circulated online Monday, suggests Trudeau was actually talking about his father.
“His philosophy, certainly as he passed it on to us, has always been, you know, Quebecers are better than the rest of Canada, because, you know, we’re Quebecers or whatever,” Trudeau says in the segment.
Tory spokesman DeLorey defended the use of the clip. “Trudeau wasn’t just relaying his father’s views,” he said, “he’s saying these views were passed on to him.”
Trudeau disagreed, saying Monday he was talking about his father’s views.
“I am incredibly proud of where I am from, as we all are, but I have learned over the past decades better ways of expressing myself,” he said.
Prior Tory attack campaigns against Liberal leaders were launched during a minority government era, when the threat of an election was ever present and political messaging efforts crucial.
This time, there are two years to go until the next election, giving time for both sides to play their strategies out.
“The Tories will need to saturate a large media universe to get the message out, and over time need to support this with consistent messaging such as remarks by MPs in the House of Commons,” Marland suggested.
“The Liberals knew this was coming and so need to get their own advertising out that emphasizes Trudeau’s positive brand attributes compared with Harper’s.”
Trudeau said what he’s heard from Canadians is that they are tired of negativity and cynicism and that the ads his party is preparing will take a more positive tone.
“The Conservatives are going to discover that the one thing they know how to do really well is no longer working for them,” he said.
The reality is, negative ads work — and the kinder, gentler response isn’t always the right one, said Bonner.
“What is normal is to respond to a visceral attack with a visceral defence,” Bonner said.
“And if he doesn’t, he’s a fool.”