On attack ads - Macleans.ca

On attack ads

Paul Wells on political parties and the draw of the negative


Richard Lam/CP

A few thoughts.

Every political party uses advertising to tell voters its opponents are unpleasant people. Literally absolutely nothing about the Conservative use of attack ads is new or unique to that party. Paul Martin ran ads before the writ period in 2004. Martin ran very sharply negative ads in 2004 and 2006, and had worse ready to run. (One of those leaked and embarrassed Martin. I’m afraid I’ll never really believe that was an accident, although that campaign was certainly capable of accidents.) Jack Layton ran and appeared in a 2008 ad so harsh I can still barely believe it.

All of this political communication is legitimate. We get into a very nasty place as a society when we start picking and choosing the things we allow political parties, or anyone else, to say. Besides, political parties say nasty things about their opponents every day; it is silly to suggest they should pretend to be sweetness and light when they speak to voters directly.

Negative ads, or attack ads, or contrast ads, or factual ads (there are many possible names for these things, and I find the semantic debate about them a little boring) bring both benefits and costs to the parties that run them. An ad has a buyer and a target. These ads generally make some of the audience believe what the buyer wants them to believe about the target. They also generally makes some of the audience think the buyer is a jerk. So the buyer is betting he can hurt the target more than he hurts himself. It’s often a safe bet but not always; much depends on circumstances. Research suggests the cumulative effect of many such ads is to suppress total voter turnout as voters become cynical about the whole business.

Slightly hysterical first-day predictions that previous rounds of Conservative pre-writ attack ads would prove ineffectual turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Totally wrong. Wrong. You’d think the people who tend to make such predictions would learn from experience, but you’d be right out of luck there. Today we have seen new ads and new predictions that they won’t work.

Conservatives I’ve spoken to are still, today, amazed that the Liberal Party of Canada did not move swiftly to define their new leader, Stéphane Dion, in an organized way immediately after he won the Liberal leadership in 2006. They’re amazed that he didn’t respond in organized fashion when the Conservatives ran their first ads against him. But what floors them is that, having watched the Conservatives reduce Dion to the lowest share of the popular vote in Liberal history in 2008, the Liberals didn’t respond any differently when it was Michael Ignatieff’s turn.

What the Liberals did, in early 2007 and again in early 2009 and once again in early 2011, was to chuckle at the Conservative ads, tell one another they wouldn’t work, and then let the ads work without an organized rebuttal aimed at the same uninterested voters who were the audience for the Conservative ads. If they respond the same way this time they will keep the Conservatives amused.

Justin Trudeau has promised not to use negative ads. That’s what Liberals always do. In the end, a couple of weeks before another historic defeat, they run negative ads. Because there’s nothing better for a party than to be hypocritical and ineffectual. One of the questions facing Justin Trudeau is whether he hopes to achieve better results than his predecessors with the same behaviour.