09/28/2015 10:05 EDT | Updated 09/28/2016 05:12 EDT

Federal Election 2015: Quebec Ads Get Nastier As Campaign Drags On

"... you mobilize fear, you mobilize anger and you try to rev up these feelings in these voters."


OTTAWA — Two hard-hitting election ads that play on voters' fears of niqab-wearing outsiders began airing in Quebec last week, but the French-language spots didn't have English equivalents.

The Bloc Quebecois and Conservative party TV ads, both aimed at Tom Mulcair's NDP, served as a contrast to a more gentle air war still playing out in the rest of Canada.

Simply put, the extraordinarily long federal campaign hasn't yet devolved into the advertising slugfest that may pundits anticipated.

Or perhaps it's just that the fireworks aren't so easily observed as they have been in elections past.

A tight, three-way race between the Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals may have only exaggerated a move toward political parties slicing and dicing the electorate into ever narrower, winnable segments. Combine that with a scattered media universe that offers dozens of specialty TV channels, a nearly endless array of online opportunities and a budget-busting 78-day campaign period, and following the thread of any party's campaign ad strategy becomes increasingly challenging.  

"The tone of the pre-campaign was extremely negative. That set a tone," says Thierry Giasson, a Laval University political science professor who's part of an election analysis project on communication, strategy and democracy.

"There's a lot of negative stuff that is being presented in Quebec" that doesn't yet have an English equivalent, said Giasson.

New Democrats briefly aired an ad featuring a rogues' gallery of Conservative-connected miscreants earlier in the campaign, but those paid media spots appear to be have been superseded by NDP ads focusing on Mulcair pitching his middle class roots. The Liberals have also been paying to air ads that promote leader Justin Trudeau talking up his goals for the country. 

In some sense, then, the opposition parties are digging out of the leadership holes dug for them by the Conservatives before the formal election campaign even began Aug. 2.

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, said the common opposition strategy appears to be about building the credibility of their own candidates rather than destroying the credibility of their opponents.

In classic "change communication," he said, that's theoretically a stronger path than attack ads.

"But there's so much for the Liberals and the NDP to go down the whole (Conservative) record — economy, information, security, social policy — I'm surprised they're not going down that list," he added.

Catherine Murray, a professor at Simon Fraser University's school of communication, says the continuing three-party race may be confounding ad strategists.

"This would be everyone's nightmare at the moment, focus-group testing any ads," said the former market researcher. "Because it's a really, really volatile environment, you're not going to get a clear read from the audience."

Tim Powers of Summa Strategies, a sometime Conservative strategist who is not advising the current campaign, said he expects the ad war to become much more evident over the last two weeks before the Oct. 19 voting day.

Powers believes the Conservatives may have taken some lessons from their saturation buy for the Justin Trudeau "just not ready" ad, which may have lowered expectations of the Liberal leader so much, so early, that he has actually benefited by exceeding public expectations.

Sharpened, mass media attacks could come around the Thanksgiving holiday weekend Oct. 10-12, which coincides with the Oct. 7 opening of the NHL season, NFL telecasts and a likely post-season run by baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

"Live sports is where people still make 'appointment television,' as it's called," said Powers. "So I would look for (advertising) buys and opportunities around that appointment television."

American research is also showing that political ads have an incredibly short shelf life.

Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck write in their book "The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election," that interviews with voters showed "no statistically meaningful impact" of ads on their views five days after the ads had aired.

"Most of the effects of the ads were gone within a day, consistent with what other studies have found," they write.

That points to the likelihood of an intense blitz of election advertising in the second week of October.

As Giasson of Laval describes it, people who aren't committed to casting a ballot may be induced to vote at the last minute on emotions or "gut reactions."

"So you mobilize fear, you mobilize anger and you try to rev up these feelings in these voters."

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