Authors: Laurie Griffin and Samantha Peck
As the first month of the election campaign slowly comes to an end, I am sure every single Canadian that has access to a TV knows that Justin is not ready (nice hair though) or has been told why Justin is in fact ready, based on the number of political ads that have made their way into every TV show, news broadcast and sporting program. What you may not know, is that for every ad a campaign put into a regular media buy, there are several more that are done strictly for an online audience.
Do these ads have the same impact and effectiveness? In order to find out, we asked two of our communications experts from Calgary – Laurie Griffin (LG) and Samantha Peck(SP)- to give their insight on what each party is offering on the World Wide Web.
Conservative – “What Would Justin Do If Elected Prime Minister”
LG – There is the old adage, that in communications, you can’t over communicate your message. The message the Conservatives have been delivering consistently for months is that Justin is “just not ready” – one that likely appeals to the existing Conservative base, and perhaps a portion of centrist fence sitters.
This particular approach – the attack ad – has been criticized for its impact on voter turn-out (potential voters become disenfranchised with all candidates and voter apathy ensues, so the theory goes) and for its lack of tact. This ad serves to reinforce the message through selective but real footage of an interview in which Trudeau did not have his speaking points polished. The ad uses juxtaposition as a device to contrast Trudeau’s widely regarded success in the recent debates against a less polished performance that calls to question not just his experience, but his very intentions and passion for Canada.
While live video footage is a strong persuasion tool, the message itself may not be as compelling for progressive leaning voters who often take issue with specific Conservative party policy positions and its record on specific hot button topics (C-51, environment, economy, etc.). However, when it comes to political ads, it is the entire toolkit as opposed to one particular tool (the attack ad) that will ultimately determine success. It is also worthwhile to note the choice of music in the background – dissonant, even creepy – another layer of psychological influence. The risk is that viewers subconsciously associate the unsettling audio with the Conservative brand itself.
While research shows attack ads to be effective, despite their perceived lack in taste, it remains to be seen whether smear campaigns alone will be enough to maintain a majority and win, not just the minds but the hearts of Canadians.
SP – While the question asked of Justin wasn’t exactly reasonable – its open-ended nature was designed to stump him, as it would any political leader whose key messaging is so often targeted to a specific issue – I still found the ad to be effective in demonstrating the Conservative’s main argument against Trudeau that he’s “just not ready.” Whether you believe he is or not, the clip itself is a good visual representation of the key message they have been trying to highlight for months.
NDP – “Tom’s Story”
LG – Pathos is a rhetorical approach that represents an appeal to emotions of the electorate. The focus here is Tom’s story (notice the use of the more personable, first name “Tom” – an approach that was actually used by the Conservatives against “Justin” Trudeau to position him as young and inexperienced). The NDP has elected to bring Tom’s personal story to the fore and parallel it with the experience of “millions of Canadian families.” The use of old family photographs are nostalgic and suggest that Tom is more aligned with Canadians and will bring Canada back to the way things used to be – an approach that could appeal to an older demographic (which typically are more right leaning) and those who have become disenfranchised with current politics.
In a subtle and skillful way, the ad manages to attack the Conservatives while rebutting key points of contention against the NDP, without actually attacking and rebutting: “we worked hard, played by the rules and lived within our means. We learned the importance of looking out for one another and sticking together… a community.” This is a loaded sentence, and the real underlying messages here are:
- (attack) the NDP is going to honour the processes – a subtle jab at Harper’s approaches with various issues and “breaking the rules” (e.g. Senate interference, calling early elections, etc.).
- (rebut) the NDP stands behind its policy to grow social programs and is not going to bankrupt the country in doing so.
Ultimately the approach behind this NDP ad is an effective one – to focus on the leader himself, demonstrating an alignment of values between the party and the populace without resorting to overt criticisms of the opponent.
SP – The goal of this ad is clear: While the NDP are doing favourably in the polls Thomas Mulcair is, for the most part, viewed as an un-personable leader. This ad is an attempt to have Mulcair resonate with Canadians on a more personal level. His disposition of being soft spoken (and let’s be frank, smiling) is also in contrast with how some voters might typically perceive him on the campaign trail.
Liberal – “It’s Unfathomable”
LG – Strategic communications is all about timing and clearly the release of this ad was meticulously planned. The recent resurgence of the Senate expense scandal in the news as former Chief of Staff Nigel Wright wraps up his final days of court testimony provides great fodder to increase the impact of attack ads relevant to the subject.
Drawing attention to any inconsistencies in the narratives of key Conservative players is generally effective but there is also a risk of the message becoming mired in the minutiae of names, titles, dates and details. In addition, the attack is primarily focused on the people and processes behind the scenes, and calls on Harper to “fire these people” ultimately forcing the viewer to make the leap in questioning the integrity and leadership of Harper himself.
It may likely resonate with people who are more politically tuned in and, specifically, are following the ever-evolving, complex Senate expense scandal story (this audience is likely to already have a general sense of how they are going to vote on October 19th). For someone who is only peripherally aware of the controversy, it may arouse distrust of the Conservatives. However, for those who are not following politics, it may be too in the weeds of the controversy to effectively sway opinions. The repetition of the word “unfathomable” however, is an effective use of irony which caps off smugly with the slogan, “It’s Time for Real Change”.
SP – In my opinion, this ad just doesn’t work. First, the “it’s unfathomable” tagline does not hit where it needs to regarding leaving a lasting impression with the viewer; it feels disconnected from the goal of trying to discredit or villainize Harper. Second, the content of this ad may actually be too high-level for it to actually be effective. Those who follow current events will already know the details of the Mike Duffy trial – and they will likely have already decided on their own whether or not Harper was implicated; the ad will not sway this particular viewer’s position. Die-hard Liberals will believe that Harper is guilty regardless of what new argument/evidence Trudeau puts forward, again having no impact (other than reinforcement) on the viewer’s mindset. Finally, this ad attempted to include a significant amount of information in a finite amount of time, failing to provide the rest of the general populace with enough detail or context for them to be able to form an opinion. Personally, I think the time and effort placed into this ad could have been put to better use.
Green – “Time for Action”
LG – The Green Party uses quaint indie illustrations and music to project its grassroots feel and brand. This advertisement (with its illustration of Green candidates popping up across the Canadian map) is effective at giving the viewer a sense that big change can happen from small grassroots movements. The ‘unlikely hero’ archetype can be quite compelling in a world brought together by technology, where significant movements have been fomented by the click of a camera phone or a social media post (think of the Arab spring and Ferguson riots).
Similar to the NDP ad, the Green Party ad has placed focus on demonstrating the party’s alignment with Canadian values around key issues like the environment and Bill C-51. The call to action is clear – it’s about getting out to vote, working together and creating change. The message that The Green Party can be an instrument in creating that change if Canadians work together (note the central theme of togetherness to offset allegations that The Green Party could “split the left”) is effective and may likely appeal to a growing earth-conscious segment of the population.
SP – This ad represents why the Green Party has struggled to resonate with the majority of Canadians; it’s cute and includes little-to-no substance. This ad serves as a bulletin to remind Green Party followers that they are participating in this election, without attempting to sway the minds of Canadians who will be voting for one of the three large parties. The music and graphics are simple and bubbly, which may leave the viewer with a feeling that this party just doesn’t (and won’t) quite “get” it – it comes across as naive. For example, the ad urges Canadians to vote for a government that will change Canadian politics for good, but makes no move to explain what exactly that means.
Special Bonus!!! Wyatt Scott for Parliament!
LG – I felt like someone slipped acid in my coffee. Watch out guys – the surreal imagery of Canadian geese, dragons, dragqueens and aliens, could well turn heads and change minds. A sensible, straight forward approach to issues like Universities (too damn expensive) and expanding health and social programs, combined with imagery like pot leaves blowing in the wind, and the indigenous people being ironically characterized by golden statues with Aztec architecture, is so mind-blowingly transcendental that it may actually hypnotize (or scare) people into voting.
SP – Alright so let’s just be clear: this ad is a trip, but it’s the perfect combination of ridiculous yet intelligent for it to become viral, which it has. The visuals are outrageous but it’s obvious that Wyatt Scott knows his target audience and knows how he can motivate them to vote for him. His three main platform points are simply (yet effectively) stated and, given the riding he’s running in, will likely resonate with many millennial voters based on the issues he’s highlighted. As well, there is no fear of him being an unknown independent, as this ad has already been viewed over 1.2M times.