Inside attack ads -

Inside attack ads

A look at the record reveals a world of blunder


Pundits argue the merits of attack ads. How well do they work? Even when they do, are they bad for democracy, driving people away from politics and the polls?

Unlike the decimating attacks on Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, this week’s Conservative attack ad against Justin Trudeau may have failed on both those counts.

The ad suggest that Trudeau is “in way over his head” and shows him prancing about in a white undershirt with a Zorro-like mustache. It then split-screens to compare him to Stephen Harper, showing the Prime Minister in a hard hat and chatting with Barack Obama.

The message, of course, is that Harper has what it takes to be PM and Justin Trudeau does not. It attempts to build on existing public impressions, as effective attacks do. But the public may have already formed an impression of Justin. After all, he’s lived his whole life in the spotlight.

Trudeau main adviser, Gerald Butts, tweeted that as of Thursday morning, the Tory ad had raised $408,000 for the Liberal Party. Trudeau’s team responded to the ad with a crafty fundraising email, asking Liberals to give $5 to the party to fight back—and also make a donation to the charity for which Trudeau shed his shirt.

Trudeau initially earned $1,900 for the Canadian Liver Foundation, when it auctioned off a lunch with him at the “What A Girl Wants” gala in Ottawa. That’s where the attack-ad footage was captured. He mock-stripped to drive the bidding. One of those watching was Laureen Harper. Oh, and that mustache was grown for Movember, the month-long charity to fight prostate cancer.

This week’s Liberal plea raised about $10,000 for the Canadian Liver Foundation, according to Melanie Kearns, Vice President of Marketing & Communications for the organization. That’s double the total of unsolicited donations the foundation would normally receive in a month.

There’s more unintended fallout. The attack ad may now be causing copyright headaches for the Conservatives. It uses footage the party didn’t own or have permission to use, footage the Huffington Post and CTV created.

The Huffington Post’s Althia Raj shot the footage of Trudeau doing the mock striptease. “The Conservative Party used the footage without our knowledge or consent. We’ve made our concerns known to the party directly and are still waiting for a response,” said Brodie Fenlon, managing editor of news at The Huffington Post Canada.

Similarly, Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News, said through a spokesperson: “A clip was used from a 1999 CTV News special, without permission. CTV News has made its concerns known to the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Fred DeLorey, Conservative Party spokesman was cagey when asked about the subject of borrowed visual material. “We don’t comment on strategy, nor do we comment on internal party matters,” he wrote in an emailed response.

This is not the first time that the Tories have lifted media for their campaigns.

For the devastating “not a leader” attack on Dion, the footage of the targeted Liberal leader—arms outstretched, asking rhetorically “do you think it’s easy to make decisions?”—was taken from the 2006 Toronto Liberal leadership debates.

The pool broadcaster for the event was CPAC. I know this because I spent five years as the Liberal leader’s videographer and caucus in-house producer. I personally sourced that footage and made CPAC aware of the unauthorized use. Jennifer Thomlinson, CPAC’s manager of communications, sings a similar tune as everyone else on this topic. “We don’t discuss the dealings we have with organizations about the use of our footage,” she said.

Still, the Harper Conservatives aren’t the only ones to have blundered with attack ads.

The old Progressive Conservatives’ 1993 campaign “face ad,” a commercial making fun of Jean Chretien’s facial deformity, the result of his suffering Bell’s palsy, may have been the final nail in a sinking Tory coffin.

John Tory, who along with Allan Gregg, ran that PC campaign, said at the time that he felt that some of the public outrage against that ad was manufactured by the Liberals. Prominent among those expressing outrage then was Romeo LeBlanc, whose son Dominic LeBlanc is now a trusted lieutenant of Justin Trudeau.

And then there was the Liberal’s 2006 “soldiers in our streets” commercial. Paul Wells wrote Monday in his blog on this website that he’s afraid that he’ll never really believe that the release of that ad was an accident.

It was, Paul—I was there.

I was in and out of that Liberal campaign war room and formatted those ads for the web. War rooms are sometimes called “veal pens” for the sick toll they take on those who staff them almost around the clock.

This attack was based on Harper’s suggestion that the military should be more entrenched in our communities. The Liberal ad team Red Leaf ratcheted up Harper’s comment to mean that he wanted to put soldiers marching in our streets. It featured lots of scary black and white imagery.

It was part of a suite of about a dozen ads, and it was actually the one that focus-tested the best, according to Karl Littler, the national campaign director for the 2006 Liberal effort.

The mistake was simply one of miscommunication: the ad team supplied the ads; several senior campaign managers nixed the soldier one as not passing the smell test; but the message was not properly passed down the line.

So the unsanctioned ad was posted with the others for about one hour, until the mistake was caught and the ad pulled from the web. It appeared on television only in the subsequent news coverage of the controversy. There wasn’t even a media release announcing the ad release.

But all of the ads were secretly cached by someone and then distributed. A mole in the campaign was suspected, perhaps the same person that sent out the Martin platform to the media before its time, killing any interest on a crucial campaign plank.

Littler says he now thinks the Martin team made a mistake in pulling that ad, that they should have stood by it. Withdrawing the soldiers-on-the-streets ad, in his view, was repeating the mistake the Kim Campbell team made in backing away from the Chretien attack.

The error the Harper Conservatives are not making now as they stand behind their Trudeau attack.