OnPulse

Apr 27, 2018

Shots Fired: #onpoli election advertising season is upon us

Authored by:

Perry Tsergas

Perry Tsergas

Everyone’s got an opinion about ads. Qualified or not, I’ll be providing my two cents throughout the 2018 Ontario election season.

While Mr. Ford isn’t a mystery to most Ontarians (like NDP Leader Andrea Horwath), he doesn’t have the same larger-than-life profile as his late brother Rob. 

This has created a vacuum and there’s still time to define him in the eyes of voters who desire change but may not feel completely comfortable with “a Ford” running the province. That vacuum can be filled by anyone, and the Ontario Liberals are trying to fill it first. It’s a fundamental political strategy – define your opponent before they can define themselves. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party did this with enormous success in 2008 with their attack ads targeting Stéphane Dion, and in 2011 with their “He didn’t come back for you” ads targeting Michael Ignatieff, well before the official election period began – something unique for Canadian politics.

Interestingly, that approach didn’t work as well in 2015 against current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a few reasons. He already had strong name recognition and he didn’t have much to be attacked on by way of previous policy decisions or quotes, the same way that Dion and Ignatieff did. Conservatives did try and raise doubts about his “readiness” to be Prime Minister. Trudeau countered the attempt to frame him with his own “I’m Ready” round of ads. Ultimately enough Canadians decided he was up to the job.

Another reason the ad campaign against Trudeau wasn’t as effective as past campaigns was the over-reliance on television advertising, relative to what was spent on digital advertising. The federal Liberals spent about three times what the Conservatives did on digital during the 2015 election campaign. Media consumption habits are changing and political parties that do not adapt and evolve will be left in the dust.

Ford has many quotes and policy positions that can, will, and should be trotted out for Ontario voters to decide for themselves who they trust to lead the province. “The Real Doug Ford” ad raises a number of these positions and ends by asking the viewer if they’d be comfortable living in “that kind of Ontario”. 

This is clearly an effort to paint Ford as a Trump-style politician. A 2016 poll by Abacus Data found that only 16% of Canadians said they would have voted for Mr. Trump.  Only 11% of respondents reported having a positive impression of the US President including only 22% of those who currently support the PCs. If the Liberals can successfully portray Ford as Trump or even Trump Lite, that may shift focus away from feelings about Wynne and towards a strong dislike and distrust of Ford.

Trump Slide

As we learned from the 2016 US Presidential election campaign, despite a great deal of effort from the Clinton campaign to turn attention to Trump’s more colourful and offensive remarks, many voters were not persuaded.

A negative ad is more likely to resonate with voters if: 

  1. There is accepted truth to the message;
  2. Facts and quotes are used where possible;
  3. Ad hominem or low blow attacks are avoided; and finally 
  4. You keep it simple. 

It’s possible these ads may not work. As we learned from the 2016 US Presidential election campaign, despite a great deal of effort from the Clinton campaign to turn attention to Trump’s more colourful and offensive remarks, many voters were not persuaded. Dislike of Clinton and personal economic insecurity “trumped” any negative impressions people might have had for the man. They may not have liked him, they may not have thought he was a nice guy, but they believed he was the right medicine for what ailed America. The Ontario Liberals will need to ensure swing voters understand that criticisms of Ford go well beyond offensive comments and opinions and could actually threaten the Ontario economy or their personal financial security.

​Of course, this is just one ad. There’s a lot of road left in this campaign journey.

Of course, this is just one ad. There’s a lot of road left in this campaign journey. The official writ period has not begun, and many voters are not yet thinking about how they’ll vote come election day. Liberals will have to put forward a compelling narrative that explains why they are a better choice than the NDP or PCs, rather than only attacking their competition. This ad is about changing the focus away from Wynne and putting it on Ford. Ford will have to find a way to appeal beyond his core base. But hey, it’s still early days, there will be plenty of time for that, and many more punchy ads.

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