The 2015 federal election: As seen on TV

Aaron Wherry on the last 48 hours in political ads and a new stage in the audio-visual battle ahead of October's actual vote

Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau.  For Geddes' piece.

Election campaigns don’t so much begin or end anymore, but merely continue, periodically intensifying around the date of an actual vote. Thus, with less than five months between now and a new federal election, those advertising slots on television and radio not already claimed by the federal government to promote Canada’s Economic Action Plan™ will likely soon be taken for expressly political appeals, the major parties with millions to spend and no pre-writ spending limits to restrict them.

And while the parties have been producing ads in periodic bursts for months now, the last 48 hours might have marked a new stage in the audio-visual battle ahead of October.

Related: Two kinds of ‘air wars’ in Ottawa

This weekend, the NDP debuted a celebration of the coffee shops and dry cleaners of Canada, as Thomas Mulcair put down his newspaper long enough to invite us to be part of bringing change to Ottawa.

A French version of the ad is available here.

The price of the ad buy is said to be in the “seven digits.”

The Conservatives followed this morning with two ads: “The Interview” and “Proven Leadership.” The latter recalls an ad the Conservatives ran in 2011, the Prime Minister once again working away in his office to finish the paperwork that will protect us from chaos and tumult. (CBC reports that the specific assembly line pictured is actually slated to close later this year.)

The former builds on a notion the Conservatives have been pushing since Justin Trudeau emerged as a rival: First the Liberal leader was “just in over his head,” then he was “just not up to the job,” and now he’s “just not ready.” (The job-interview conceit closely matches an ad the Manitoba NDP ran in 2011.)  The Conservatives notably soft-pedal their dismissal of Trudeau in this case. “I’m not saying no forever, but not now,” says one woman reviewing Trudeau’s metaphorical resumé.

The Liberals released an ad last month to mock the government’s use of advertising during the NHL playoffs and a new online video that recounts the government’s actions on a single day this month and, on Monday afternoon, they released a new television clip. Focused on the Liberal party’s new tax proposals, the video—entitled “True Story”—shows Trudeau visiting with an adorable family who would receive more money under his plan.

Meanwhile, a group calling itself “Working Canadians,” which was active during the last Ontario election, has released two radio ads that target Trudeau—a reminder of the role third parties might play in the months ahead. (The Working Canadians ad will air on radio stations in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver over the next three weeks.)

These ads are useful, at least, for clarifying the ideas that the parties would like to focus on: leadership, the economy, security, the middle class, change, fairness. But how much any of these ads will affect the result on Oct. 19 remains to be seen.

The Conservative attacks on Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff are often credited with spoiling any hope either had of becoming prime minister, but earlier attacks on Trudeau were thought to have had little impact on his relative popularity. Indeed, the precise utility of political ads is the subject of some debate. In analyzing the available research on ads in 2011, Nate Silver noted that the effect of any one ad might be limited and that content could matter less than quantity. “Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent. This simple fact sometimes gets lost, because people fixate on the content of ads. But the volume of ads may matter more,” he wrote. “Consider the 2000 [U.S.] presidential election. In the final two weeks of the campaign, residents in battleground states were twice as likely to see a Bush ad as a Gore ad. This cost Gore four points among uncommitted voters.”

Parties touting these ads obviously generate news reports (like this!) that carry their messages. But the real impact is likely in getting these ads aired widely and repeatedly. That would leave, presumably, the richer Conservatives in the best position. But the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens are also raising more money than they have since new fundraising rules were introduced in 2004.

All of which should culminate in television, radio and Internet streams that are lousy with sloganeering through the fall.

(Parties don’t generally reveal the details of their ad buys, so our own Paul Wells created #sawanad to track sightings across the country, with such reports often providing a rough sense of scale and even revealing campaigns that haven’t been promoted by the parties.)

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