CBC News Federal Election

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Analysis & Commentary

The true north, strong and negative

By Carolyn Ryan
Forget the old saying "He who throws mud loses ground." Political parties and candidates wouldn't use advertisements that criticize or attack their opponents if they didn't work.

Think about it. Why spend thousands of dollars making an attack ad and tens of thousands more airing it across the country unless it's going to help your campaign?

Even the most infamous attack ad in Canadian history was beginning to sway voters to the Progressive Conservatives when then leader Kim Campbell abruptly pulled it from the airwaves during the 1993 campaign, says one of the men responsible for it.

The spot, conceived by Allan Gregg and Tom Scott, showed photos of Jean Chr�tien's distorted face while voices said, "Does this look like a prime minister?" and "I personally would be very embarrassed if he were to become prime minister of Canada."

Gregg insists in Warren Kinsella's book Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics that Tories who had seen the ad before it aired somehow missed the fact that it could be seen as a slur against a physical deformity caused by facial paralysis Chr�tien suffered in his youth. The firestorm the ad created led to Campbell ordering it off the air within two days.

But polling done for the party over those two days showed the beleaguered Tories gaining on the Liberals, Gregg told Kinsella. "We went from 21 points down to 11 down and then 10, on the two successive nights. That's hard to read a lot into, but it's something."

Chr�tien's Liberals went on to win a majority government in that campaign. Campbell's party went from powerful to pathetic, sending only two MPs to the 295-seat House of Commons.

At the time of the 1993 Chr�tien campaign, people from across the political spectrum proclaimed that negative advertising had no place in presumably kinder, gentler Canadian politics. But pointed personal attacks have been a fixture in Canadian campaigns for more than 100 years. A few examples:

The age of partisan newspapers

I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong about that?
"I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong about that?" - A cartoon by John Wilson Bengough, published in Grip magazine in 1873, takes aim at Sir John A. Macdonald.
Paid TV advertisements attract all the attention today, but in the decades following Confederation, newspapers ruled the roost when it came to moulding opinion. Most Canadian newspapers were avidly partisan in their leanings if not their ownership and funding, so editorial cartoons, it could be argued, were the original attack ads.

The country's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was a natural target. A colourful and eloquent Scot who enjoyed his drink, Macdonald was brought down in the 1874 election after it was revealed that he had taken bribes from a businessman who wanted a contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Anti-Conservative newspapers had a field day. One cartoon had Macdonald, with his hands in his pockets, staring down earnest Liberal Leader Alexander Mackenzie while saying, "I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong about that?"

Mr. Sage takes to the airwaves

Sixty years later, a rising technology was harnessed to make political points. Radio was the new medium, but the same old allegations of corruption and incompetence were the message in the 1935 campaign.

The Conservatives struck this time, buying chunks of time on radio stations across the country for broadcasts by a folksy actor calling himself Mr. Sage. He chatted with his friend Bill and later his wife about unsubstantiated allegations of fraud, intimidation, lies, blackmail and worse on the part of William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberals.

The ads were not identified at first as being funded by the Conservatives, but party officials later acknowledged their involvement.

King's party struck back with a series of three radio chats recorded by the leader, who was much more popular than the Conservatives' Depression-battered R.B. Bennett, and won the election.

Free-trade ad taps into hidden fears

"Good negative ads do not persuade as much as they are able to reinforce existing opinion and translate that into sowing seeds of doubt about one's opponent," Queen's University political studies Prof. Jonathan Rose wrote in a September 2004 article for Options Politiques.

He cites the "border ad" run by the John Turner Liberals in the 1988 general election campaign, which was focused on then PM Brian Mulroney's quest for a free-trade agreement with the United States.

"The ad showed two men sitting on opposite sides of a table," Rose wrote. "The Canada and U.S. flags on the table identify them as negotiators. As the deal is about to be finalized, the American says, '... there's one line I'd like to change.' The earnest young Canadian negotiator replies, 'Which line is that?' A pencil eraser begins to rub out the 49th parallel and the American says, 'This line here. It's just getting in the way.'"

Rose thinks the ad worked "because it picked up on polling data that many Canadians were concerned that free trade would result in a loss of Canadian sovereignty."

Why didn't Mulroney's Tories lose that election, if the ad did its job so well? Rose credits the Conservatives' decision to respond quickly with a major TV ad campaign that played off the Liberal pitch. The border was drawn back in as a voice said, "This is where we draw the line."

The PCs and the K-Tel hits campaign


A still from the infamous 1993 ad the Tories aired about Jean Chr�tien.
After the Chr�tien face debacle in 1993, it took the federal Progressive Conservatives a few years to dare another negative ad aimed at the Liberal prime minister. But leading up to the November 2000 election, the party ran ads that used humour as well as attack to get its message across, and this one attracted no condemnation.

The campaign spoofed the high-energy K-Tel record ads, referring to a hit parade of Liberal "lies" and calling Chr�tien a liar. The ad tested well with focus groups, though the party elected only 12 MPs in the 301-seat House of Commons under then leader Joe Clark, down from 20 in the previous election.

Dalton McGuinty 'not up to the job'


Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was the victim of one personal attack campaign by the Conservatives but survived another.
Progressive Conservatives in Ontario had a winning formula in the 1999 provincial campaign, coming up with a simple, short tag line that resonated with voters. Compared to then premier Mike Harris, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty was "just not up to the job," the media campaign proclaimed. Voters evidently agreed, sending Harris back to office. But four years later, the same approach didn't work.

The first wave of advertising in the 2003 campaign tried to convince voters that McGuinty was "still not up to the job." Ontarians were now starting to wonder if that was true, though, political scientist David Docherty wrote on the CBC.ca election site covering that election.

"Running similar ads this time around is a little riskier," Docherty wrote in September 2003. "While many voters may still share the sentiment, recycling a four-year-old campaign theme suggests that the Tories have run out of ideas."

Indeed, helped by a public backlash against an ill-advised Conservative news release that labelled him an "evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet," McGuinty easily defeated Tory Leader Ernie Eves, a former Harris cabinet minister.

Surviving the sponsorship scandal

In the spring 2004 election, it was only a matter of time before someone went negative.

For months, opposition politicians had been delighting in some prime ammunition handed to them by Auditor General Sheila Fraser: the Quebec sponsorship scandal, complete with allegations that Liberals not only mismanaged public money but may have diverted some of it into party coffers.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives came up with two ads to remind viewers of the issue. One showed a man's hand taking money out of a cookie jar, until another man's hand appears out of nowhere to stop him. The second ad showed janitors emptying Parliament Hill garbage cans filled with taxpayers' cash into ever-larger trash receptacles, ending with a dumpster.

To respond, Paul Martin's Liberals decided to go on the attack themselves. "They made the strategic decision that if they couldn't drive up their own positives, they had to drive up their main opponent's negatives," Ipsos-Reid Public Affairs president Darrell Bricker wrote in a recent article on his company's website.

So they launched ads warning that Canadians wouldn't recognize their country when Harper was done with it, saying he would have drawn Canada into the war in Iraq, opposed abortion rights, would weaken health care and gun laws, and would pull Canada out of Kyoto. The ad features a Canadian flag fading away.

Another ad implied that like former Progressive Conservative PM Brian Mulroney and Ontario Premier Mike Harris, Harper would be unable to balance the books after increasing spending and lowering taxes.

"The Liberal attack would not have been as effective without the assistance of the Conservatives themselves," Bricker noted. The ads' message was reinforced by campaign missteps and unguarded interviews by Conservative candidates. So in the end, the Liberals won the day - and the chance to form a minority government.

The episode seemed to prove the value of longtime Liberal strategist Keith Davey's advice in such situations: "If the other guy says, 'You're fat,' don't say, 'I'm not.' Say, 'You're ugly.'"

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ELECTION RESULTSDetails>
1241035129
Total Elected and Leading
CON124036.27%
LIB103030.23%
BQ51010.48%
NDP29017.48%
IND10.52%
OTH005.02%

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