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Trudeau Attack Ads: Hit or Miss?

04/19/2013 05:45 EDT | Updated 06/19/2013 05:12 EDT
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With Justin Trudeau's official arrival on the scene as captain of the Liberal team, everyone knew the Conservatives would be quick off the mark with their attack ads. Now that they are out and saturating the airwaves, voters will have an opportunity to decide if they are a hit or miss.

Suffice it to say there was quite a bit of anticipation in partisan ranks (from all quarters) to see how damaging they would be. For Conservatives, fond memories of the successful attack ads against Stephane (The Shrug) Dion and Michael (Just Visiting) Ignatieff left us impatiently waiting for this next edition aimed at Mr. Trudeau. Well, they have arrived, but I have mixed feelings about them.

On a personal level, I like the one with the direct comparison between Harper and Trudeau. For me that one makes sense and it does to a number of nonpartisans I have spoken to as well. The other one which features an auction for the Liver Foundation probably helps Trudeau a bit. If nothing else he is shown as human, a good sport and willing to have a bit of fun at his own expense. It is also an interesting contrast to the steely eyed, very formal, rarely smiling Stephen Harper.

It makes for an interesting discussion in political backrooms. If the Liberals plan on running Trudeau as the anti-Harper, will that ad hurt or help Trudeau in the long term?

Media reaction was typically negative or downplayed the potential effectiveness of the ads. But, if you are a Conservative, you expected the media to trash any ad that attacked their golden boy, so there was nothing new there. In the end it doesn't matter one bit what the media think or even what political partisans think -- it all comes down to what the voters think. We won't know that for some time, perhaps not until 2015.

Political attack ads are designed to make you think. Their aim is to get you to look at a person or an issue in a different light, one different from what the media or the party's political spin machine wants you to look at. Simply put, they work. While it seems everyone complains about them, they still watch them.

One of my favorite ads was from the 1988 "Free Trade" election. It was a very simple Liberal attack ad that showed an eraser wiping out the border between Canada and the United States. It was very effective.

An attack ad is not prepared overnight. An incredible amount of research goes into them. I can't imagine the number of hours I spent over the years providing clips, quotes or background notes for various attack ads. All of that gets reviewed, sifted, perhaps even tried on focus groups and eventually released to a huge amount of publicity. Even when a party doesn't have enough money to buy air time, they release their attack ads online. The media then helpfully write about them and provide links for readers to watch the ads, thus providing free publicity for the party concerned.

Attack ads can also backfire and help the opponent you are trying to tear down. Remember the Conservative 1993 ad attacking Chretien, or the Liberal 2006 attack ad about "Soldiers in the Streets."

It's far too early to tell whether these ads will work or not. Even if they don't there will be lots of time for the Conservatives to capitalize on Trudeau's mistakes and turn those mistakes into an ad. For example, why would he ever stand up and claim to want to protect the jobs of Canadians when he should have known he wrote a letter to the government asking for assistance to bring some foreign workers into his riding? Now that is where inexperience really shows. That has the making of a good attack ad!

Will the ads hurt Trudeau? We don't know yet, but all the hype about them has certainly helped the Conservatives to get people to look at them. Here is a quote from a mass mailing to supporters put out by the Conservative Party:

"... these ads have spread farther and faster than any ads we've ever done. We are communicating directly with Canadians rather than passing through the media's 'filter.' In two days, our ads were viewed more than 270,000 times on YouTube -- more views than we have ever received on any video before -- including during an election cycle." (April 18, 2013)

Are attack ads effective? The Conservatives seem to think so. What do you think?

What Is Justin Trudeau Doing?