Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are Conservative Attack Ads Backfiring?

Are the Conservative Party of Canada’s recently unveiled attack ads backfiring for Stephen Harper? Given what’s been written about the controversy these ads are creating, versus the substance of the actual ads, I think that it may be fair to answer that question in the affirmative. Although, I would include the caveat that, like the ads themselves, it may be premature to answer the question with an unequivocal “yes”.

And that’s the problem with these ads. Just what the heck are they? Some have suggested that they are clearly election ads. However, there isn’t an election underway that I’m aware of. So, ok, then they’re pre-election ads by the Conservative Party. Sure, ok, but Stephen Harper keeps telling everybody that he doesn’t want an election. Some are suggesting then, that this is Harper’s way of bargaining with the opposition parties from a position of strength: he’s showing them that if they choose to bring the government down, this is the sort of campaign that they’re in for, so hopefully one of the opposition parties will side with government come budget time. Well, that’s an interesting way to seek co-operation amongst political parties, as Jack Layton, Leader of the NDP, noted. It’s seeking co-operation by hitting the opposition leaders over the head with a two-by-four.

I can hear Conservative Party supporters now, saying, “Sure, the ads are premature, but they’re doing their job: portraying the Stephen Harper as the best choice for Canadians, and vilifying Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the process.” Well…is that the effect they’re really having?

I have to admit, at this time, I’ve not actually watched the ads. I’ve only been following the controversies. Let me recap, to date:

On the day that the ads were released publicly, one of the links on the CPC website led to a video posted mischievously which portrayed then-opposition Leader Stephen Harper giving a speech in the House of Commons about why Canada should help the U.S. invade Iraq. That speech was later determined to be stolen, almost word for word, from a speech given by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. This clearly wasn’t a CPC highlight reel video which Harper and his gang would want Canadians to remember.

Next up, enter the CBC, which complained that their broadcast footage was being used for partisan political purposes. Apparently, one of the Ignatieff attack ads used video footage from the CBC’s archives, which the CBC would consider a no-no under most circumstances, given that they paid for the footage and are owners of it. As the footage goes to further partisan political aims, well, for the CBC that’s just right out. However, the CPC argued that since U.S. public affairs channel C-SPAN had allowed the CPC to use footage of Ignatieff in the past, based on “fair use” provisions, the CBC’s material falls under those same provisions. Conservative Party of Canada legal experts determined that there was no violation of any copyright laws.

Just keep that in mind the next time you post a Rick Mercer clip to YouTube.

Anyway, last I heard, the CBC was still pursuing the matter.

Then, there’s the biggest brouhaha of them all, which is still unfolding even as I write this, with the other political parties, the civil service, watchdogs of various sorts and a few constitutional experts throwing their opinions around. Apparently, in the only non-attack ad produced by the Conservative Party, there is footage of Stephen Harper at work in his office. In the House of Commons. In a federal government building paid for and maintained by the taxpayers of Canada. And that’s hardly the kind of location that political party ad producers should be thinking of using as a backdrop.

Sure, maybe Harper looks “prime ministerial” sitting in his office, doing paperwork. But think about it for a moment: would you ever contemplate seeing a U.S. presidential campaign ad where the current president is seated in the oval office, extolling the electorate to vote for him? That’s not exactly the sort of backdrop which would be appropriate for a partisan pitch. Ever.

The CPC says that the Prime Minister’s office is different, and that they are breaking no laws or procedures through its use. And, as the opposition parties are discovering, the CPC may be right about that from a legal perspective. I won’t go through the twists and turns which journalists have been uncovering now for the past few days about why this is so; just take my word for it that it’s almost a chicken and egg, pretzel shaped argument which seems to suggest that the ads are ok…from a legal perspective. From a moral perspective, however, there can’t be any justification for the Conservatives to stoop so low in a partisan ad. However, when it comes to political gain, the Conservative Party of Canada proves time and again that it's hardly a bastion of morality.

Pundits in the mainstream media, along with opposition politicians, are noting the strange timing of the release of these ads, following in the wake of the Tucson shootings and President Obama’s inspirational message to Americans which, in part, urged everyone to tone the rhetoric down. It’s clear that Harper, like Sarah Palin next door, didn’t seem to get that message, and it’ll be "half truths and character assassination", a.k.a. "business as usual" over at the CPC “war room” (I’m not sure when running an election campaign turned into a “war”, by apparently that’s where we’re at now: it’s winner-take-all and everyone else is a casualty. It’s no wonder that there is so little co-operation in parliament).

Others have pointed out that these sorts of attack ads really do work for the Party doing the attacking, although right now, I’m not so sure that the Conservatives are accruing any net benefit. It’s going to be interesting to see whether there are any changes in the polls next week which might attributable to the release of these ads. I, for one, expect to see a slight, but noticeable dip in Conservative Party support, which isn’t what I’d normally expect to see in a circumstance where all of the parties are gearing up for an election. No, I don’t believe these attack ads are working out for Harper and the CPC as they had planned.

In the long run, though, what Green Party Leader Elizabeth May had to say about the nature of attack ads might end up bearing fruit for the Conservatives. May says that attack ads really do work, but not in the way that many think they do. She says that attack ads work by turning off the electorate through their creation of a political environment akin to a high-school history class run by a newly-hired supply teacher. The ads work by turning voters off, and therefore keeping voters at home.

Attack ads work against the interests of democracy.

It’s certainly hard to argue with May on this one. You only need to look at the declining rate of participation in Canadian elections, which has coincided with a rise in American-style attack ads and the politics of negativity. New, younger voters in particular, are choosing to remain disengaged. There’s nothing inspirational about negativism. The Conservative Party is aware of this, and they are quite happy to have scores of younger voters remain at home on election day, as younger voters overwhelmingly do not support the Conservative Party. Why wouldn’t the CPC want to turn younger voters off with negativity?

All that being said, though, I still believe that the Conservative Party of Canada appears to have committed a blunder with the premature release of election-style attack ads. Rather than Canadians talking about how terrible Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton are, this week's conversations around the water cooler and at Tim Horton’s have been about Conservative mis-steps.

Yes, Canadians seem to be resigned to the fact that an election is going to happen (and no one is really clamouring for our politicians to work together to resolve whatever issue might lead to an election).

With the resignation of voters in mind, Conservative Party strategists can’t be happy that they have lost control of their message this week. For the boys in the CPC war room, that’s akin to losing the initiative in battle. They have been on the defensive all week long, and clearly that wasn’t a part of their game plan. Instead of coming out with guns a-blazing, what we have is a Prime Minister which has been made to look like an American partisan opportunist (and one who is having trouble shooting straight at that). And that’s hardly the sort of image which is going to convince undecided voters to give the Cons a 38% false majority when the election comes.

Maybe it’s time to resurrect that fuzzy blue sweater, Mr. Harper.

1 comment:

Mark Richard Francis said...

What's interesting is that most people absorb the message in attack ads, and, months later, keep the message but forget the source. Lots of research on it.

But attack ads mostly are for polarizing the electorate. If they worked wonders, Harper would have back-to-back majorities at this point, given how many he's run.