“Of course I worry about the economy,” a middle-aged woman says. Then, the men take over the Conservative party ad. An elderly man with an Irish lilt calls the cost of NDP promises, “huge.” A younger man worries about following the downward slide of other countries. A similar male voice suggests his job “will be under attack.” Then another fellow’s slight East Coast accent predicts it would be “disastrous.” And then it’s back to the Irish lilt, reminiscing grimly about life under NDP government.
Finally, a younger woman says her family can’t afford the NDP—a neat segue to the ad’s tagline as the spare piano and strings play out with a cymbal roll.
If you weren’t looking at the screen while this attack ad was on, simply listening, this is how the gender balance would have seemed. But women were in every shot. A white-haired woman doesn’t flinch as her Irish-Canadian partner leans in to inveigh, the second bespectacled man’s spouse has an emoticon-esque straight line across her face, a brunette bounces her infant next to the unemployment-fearing dad and the fourth man’s companion looks up at his warning and then away. Another wordless moment from the white-haired woman, this time with a light shudder, as the infant-bouncing woman worries for her little one.
This is part of a series of five recent Conservative ads, which have largely drawn attention for the recurring line about Harper not being perfect. But within this unsubtle message about the risky opposition is something more subtle: hushed women. Of the 33 different scenes across the ad series, women do the talking in 12 of them, including a senior’s line about how Harper is “not perfect, but we can depend on him.”
The disparity is more glaring in the many scenes where a man and woman appear together: 13 times the guy talks, and only twice does his female companion. “There’s a common stream in advertising literature—it’s an old one—that women are often used as decoration, a supplement to an authoritative speaker, and it’s most often male,” says Kathleen Searles, assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. To her, it could reflect campaign strategy: “They think men are more authoritative, that men have the ultimate voice; they think men have the expertise on the economy and that people will find them more credible and trustworthy.”
Searles wrote an academic article earlier this year on women’s and men’s voices in political ads, but focused on voiceovers. Males were far more commonly heard in 2010 and 2012 U.S. congressional races, especially when talking about energy or finances, she found. Female voiceover tended to come up on more “feminine” issues like health care or education, or were often used to narrate negative ads, perhaps to “soften” the attack,” Searles says.
In the Conservative ads, one of the women sitting next to a man—the lone non-white person depicted in any of the spots—asks a question about who will provide leadership. Another frets about her family. Men tend to have more to answer.
“The women are speaking from the private sphere, domestic sphere or speaking about emotions or impressions, whereas the men are speaking about their impressions of the economy or the job market,” says Linda Trimble, a University of Alberta political scientist who specializes in gender and media representations. “I don’t think it’s that overt, but it just reinforces the idea of the men as the official knowers about politics and the economy.”
The nuclear family doesn’t much exist anymore, says brand strategist Tony Chapman. But in a storyline where protecting families from a teetering economy is the key theme, a male leader can convey comfort. “It’s very far from what the truth is nowadays but it’s something people are comfortable with,” Chapman says.
The Conservative party is loath to discuss strategy while it’s unfolding, and would not comment for this story. The characters are neither actors nor campaign volunteers, spokeswoman Meagan Murdoch says.
Harper’s party is famously meticulous in ads and marketing, with a winning streak to back them up. Remember those 2006 election ads, which ended with a street billboard saying “Stand up for Canada” and a passing car’s horn? The beep-beep was intended to punctuate the ad in viewers’ memory, according to Susan Delacourt, aToronto Star writer and author of Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them.
The New Democrats are no strangers to subtext. Their latest attack ad parodying the Conservatives’ resumé-appraisal commercials tear down Harper and then praise Tom Mulcair. And if the back-atcha closing quip “nice hair, though” and the rest of the ad remind viewers of the Conservatives’ heavy-rotation hit on Justin Trudeau? Well, that’s convenient.
That NDP ad features two bantering men, two women. The Liberals’ latest one-minute spot showcases 10 male candidates speaking up for their leader, and six women.
The Conservatives have another gender imbalance: polls show them performing much better among males than females. “The economy is not owned by either gender; it is an issue that’s of interest to both males and females,” Searle says. It’s unclear how these paid displays of mansplaining the election campaign will help the party on this score, if that is indeed one of these commercials’ aims.