A first look at Justin Trudeau's new ad: not a tree in sight

John Geddes on Liberals and locale

My first thought on seeing Justin Trudeau’s new ad was that he’s not wandering in a sun-dappled glade.

I refer, as aficionados of Liberal rebuttals to Conservative attack ads will instantly have realized, to the fall 2009 Michael Ignatieff spot, in which Liberal mad men concocted a scene in which their besieged leader held forth in a sylvan setting, variously described by amused pundits as a leafy glen, a copse, Sherwood Forest and Narnia.

Back then, Liberals compounded the confusion about why Ignatieff was speaking to Canadians from the wildwood by declining to say exactly what thicket served as their set. They wanted it to be seen as Anywhere, Canada, with photosynthesis. But the mystery inevitably fed the growing impression that Ignatieff was lost.

Trudeau’s ad has the advantage of a more precise locale, and thus a more meaningful one. The instantly familiar classroom backdrop—the metal desk he’s propped against, the green blackboard with an algebra lesson chalked on it, a TV on one of those high trolleys—underlines his assertion that, as a former teacher, he has nothing to apologize for about his pre-politics resumé.

And his script attempts to connect that bit of his back story to the more famous part—you know, his dad. “I’m proud to be a teacher,” he says, adding, “I’m a son, but I’m also a father.”

The ad opens with a glimpse of the much-discussed recent Conservative attack ad against Trudeau showing on that classroom TV set. (Did the Liberals leave the DVD behind, I wonder? I imagine a jaded teacher coming into a rowdy class and saying, ‘Calm down, people, we’re going to watch a video today.’ And then instead of the usual NFB short, the kids settle in to dissect cynical political messages. This would actually fit with what I believe is called the “media literacy” curriculum these days.)  Trudeau clicks off the Tory depiction of him as a goofball, and begins, “Canadians deserve better. We can keep mistrusting and finding flaws in each other or we can pull together and get to work.”

I’m going to take a wild guess that this does not mean he’s actually swearing off mistrusting and finding flaws. But we’ll have to wait, evidently, to see what Trudeau looks like when he decides to adopt a more hard-hitting persona. For now, he’s cast as a coolest teacher, using his calmest voice.

It’s not an arresting image so much as a disarming one. Some seasoned political strategists will, I’m sure, fault it for failing to hit back hard enough. But it has to beat wandering among the trees.