OTTAWA — If campaign advertising is the window into each political party's strategy, the federal election campaign that culminates Oct. 19 appears to be turning into a two-horse race.
All three major federal parties released new ads over the past few days as the 78-day campaign roars into the home stretch. The preoccupations of those ads reveal a lot about the parties making them.
The Conservatives, who would seem to benefit the most from a three-way race that splits the progressive vote, are instead presenting the ballot as a stark choice between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair doesn't get a mention.
"It's decision time," says the male voice-over to open three new 30-second Conservative TV spots. "Liberal or Conservative. Let's break it all down."
Another trio of new Conservative ads directly attack Trudeau over an ominous score: "Justin: He's just not ready. And you'll pay for it. We'll all pay for it," says the male narrator.
Three new Liberal TV ads, meanwhile, begin with Harper's black-and-white image, his name, or both before pivoting to Trudeau making a sunny, direct pitch to the viewer. "That's real change," Trudeau concludes.
The NDP's latest 30-second TV spot has Mulcair looking prime ministerial at an office desk making the case for change. But his specific contrast point in the ad is with Trudeau, not the incumbent at 24 Sussex Drive. "Experienced. Principled. Ready for change," says the closing text.
Alex Marland, a political scientist who studies political messaging at Memorial University in St. John's NL., said a commonality among the latest ads is that they all stress leaders rather than parties — "not only their own leaders, but other party leaders."
"It gets into essentially personality politics."
Catherine Murray, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University, ran the new ads past her fourth-year political communication, public opinion and political marketing class and some of their observations are included below.
The ubiquitous Conservative "interview" ad, in which a group of actors playing office workers look at Trudeau's resume and declare him "just not ready," has had saturation coverage since last spring.
Now the party is pushing the same message in a much darker way, casting Trudeau as a grave threat to economic security.
"As we enter the period where there's more and more advertising, it's harder to introduce a new narrative, a new frame, a new approach," said Memorial's Marland. "It's a lot easier for voters if you repeat things you've been saying on the campaign trail, even before the campaign."
The ads also insinuate the Liberals would end income splitting for seniors pensions — something Trudeau has expressly and repeatedly ruled out for many months — and that Trudeau would "claw back" Tax Free Savings Accounts (the Liberals will leave TFSAs as they were before the 2015-16 pre-election budget doubled the annual contribution limit to $10,000 annually.) One ad says Trudeau plans to "end monthly child-care cheques," which is simply false.
"The two Conservative ads will likely mark the beginning of the campaign to get out the Conservative vote," said Jonathan Rose, a Queen's University political scientist who studies political communication.
Murray's Simon Fraser students wrote that the fast voice-over "bombards the viewer."
"Keyword was 'taxes' and gave viewers the ultimate (and easy) choice between wanting to raise taxes or lower them by choosing Harper."
The students referred to the harder hitting spots as the "Slasher Ad" and said the tone was "scary, playing on undecided voters' fear."
Take a peek:
Two of the three new Liberal ads start with a plodding dirge and Harper depicted in black and white — classic attack-ad imagery — but then shift to full-colour Trudeau, who compares and contrasts Liberal policies to Harper's over a rising score.
One ad starts with multiple images of Harper rising and buttoning his suit jacket over the years in the House of Commons, illustrating his long time in office.
Trudeau asserts the prime minister is out of touch. "He doesn't feel the frozen incomes, the rising cost of living, the disappearing jobs."
The ads all include a physically active Trudeau smiling, speaking and interacting with people, which emphasizes the 43-year-old's youthfulness.
"Unlike the other party's ads, Trudeau and his campaign team are redefining the political advertising genre by creating a hybridity of positive messaging combined with a subtle attack," wrote the Simon Fraser students.
Rose, of Queen's University, called the Liberal spots "great examples of policy-rich ads that communicate information."
"I think having the voice-over from Trudeau reinforces the link between the party and leader and implicitly responds to the claim of him being lightweight."
Take a peek:
Over and Over
Out of Touch
Ready to Lead
The NDP leader half sits on a large desk in a bright office, framed by hardcover books and talking straight into the camera as he lays out several platform promises. It's noteworthy that "Tom Mulcair" appears in text in the lower left hand corner of the screen for the first seven seconds, as if the NDP leader is still being introduced to Canadians.
"Unlike Mr. Trudeau's plan, my plan is built to last and I have the experience to get the job done," says Mulcair, never mentioning the Conservatives or Harper.
The Simon Fraser class found the spot portrays Mulcair "trying very hard" and employing professional and respectful words and symbols, but the direct-to-camera pitch was deemed "either endearing or kind of creepy."
"In terms of creepiness, he resembles an awkward, underpaid mall Santa," wrote the students.
A second, online-only NDP ad goes after Trudeau for supporting the Harper Conservatives on their contentious security bill and also for Liberal failures to defeat the Conservative government during its minority years. "Justin Trudeau takes on Stephen Harper?" says the opening text, framing the ad's message that Trudeau can't stand up to the prime minister.
Rose says it is telling that the target of the NDP spot in the final 13 days of the campaign is not the incumbent government, but the other challenger for power.
"The interesting thing about these (ads) is not the content but the glimpse they give us into the strategy in the last two weeks of the campaign," said the Queen's professor.
Take a peek:
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