After two weeks of TV and radio silence, Ontario voters will start to see and hear a lot more from their party leaders Wednesday with the end of a ban on paid advertising.
Imposed by Ontario's chief electoral officer, the ban put a moratorium on paid print and broadcast ads but did not apply to online messages, where the parties have been posting video ads since the campaign kicked off.
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Such bans are imposed in snap elections and are intended to prevent the incumbent government — in this case, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals — from having an advantage over the other parties. Without such a ban, the party in power could prepare ads in the days and weeks leading up to dissolution, leaving opposition parties with no time to catch up.
Sitting governments already have an advantage in the timing of ads, often using them to burnish their image as needed during a mandate. The Liberal Party aired ads depicting a purposeful Wynne walking on suburban streets defending her government in the weeks before the moratorium began two Wednesdays ago.
With the lifting of the ban, Greg Elmer, a professor of media at Ryerson University, expects the parties will start with a few hard-hitting ads right off the bat, while keeping some messages in reserve to see how the campaign unfolds.
"All of the parties are trying to judge the electorate, to see what the other sides are putting out and respond in kind," he said.
Elmer said online political ads are well-suited to "rapid response" messages because they can be produced and posted quickly. They work well in a back-and-forth battle with an opponent's campaign, almost like a debate.
But online ads also have their limitations. They tend to reach people already closely invested in the campaign. Many of these people can be highly influential — such as media types with thousands of social media followers — but online ads tend to be missed by voters who choose not to follow every twist and turn of the campaign.
TV ads, on the other hand, "tend to speak to broader swaths of the electorate," said Elmer.
"These ads tend to try to humanize the leaders [and offer] a way of sealing the deal with voters in a much more emotional sense." They can convey a personality about the party leader that is hard to deliver in an online ad, Elmer added.
Peter Graefe, a political science professor at Hamilton's McMaster University, agrees that online ads have a limited influence on voters.
"Most voters don't consume ads on the internet," he said in an interview with CBC News. "Those who do are ones who already have pretty high levels of political knowledge and sophistication and are unlikely to be moved by the ads."
However, Graefe said, online ads can become news stories on their own, which in turn can frame the campaign debate.
"Even though only a few hundred or a few thousand people will watch the ad, in most cases the media reliably reported what was in the ads," said Graefe. "The ads were aimed mostly on this idea that the media would talk about them and that would help push the media narrative much more than about reaching Ontario voters."
Graefe said he does not expect the broadcast ads that will begin appearing Wednesday will be overly negative or personal.
"I suspect there won't be a whole lot of personal attacks," he said. "I think there will be a fair number of brand attacks and platform attacks."
A Liberal television ad that will begin running Wednesday features Wynne promising to "build Ontario up," but the script also directly criticizes Hudak's plan to cut 100,000 civil service jobs.
"Tim Hudak wants to make classrooms more crowded, cut teachers and health care and somehow make our economy grow by firing 100,000 people," Wynne says in the ad. "I want to build Ontario up, not tear it down."
In a conference call with reporters to introduce the ad Tuesday, campaign co-chair Deb Matthews denied the new ad was a negative attack, instead characterizing it as a "contrasting" ad intended to draw a clear distinction between Liberal and Tory plans for the province.
"We're not afraid to talk about the contrast, and there are two very contrasting positions," said Matthews, a cabinet minister who is seeking re-election in the riding of London North Centre. "I don't remember any campaign where the choice was as clear as it is now."
Elmer said he expects the Liberals will use their TV time to flesh out details about what PC Leader Tim Hudak's promise of deep public-sector job cuts will mean to the average Ontarian.
"You'll see a much more concerted effort to raise concerns about what those big numbers will mean to families, students and public-sector workers," he said. "The Liberals are going to have to do a better job of putting out a clear, understandable and compelling platform. They've been on their back foot, so that larger case has not been made yet."
Graefe said he'll be watching to see how much ad time the NDP is able to buy.
"They may be more cash-strapped and less willing to do a big ad buy," he said "They don't have the donors with the deep pockets."
The online ad war: negative or not?
So far, the tenor of the online ad war — which may be an indication of the TV ads to come — has been fairly tame. The PCs have stayed away from harping on about Liberal scandals such as eHealth and the gas plant fiasco. One 30-second, TV-style ad posted on the PC's YouTube channel speaks about the party's job plan and promises a more prosperous future, with the tag line "Hope is on the way."
Another ad, touting the PC jobs plan, features people stating their occupation and telling the camera "I want to work." Neither Tory ad mentions Wynne.
The Liberals hijacked the Tories' "I want to work" ad, posting a "corrected" version on their YouTube channel with the voice track altered. In the Liberal version, each person in the ad says, "Tim Hudak fired me."
That ad was posted Monday and promptly pulled down from the Liberal YouTube site on Tuesday afternoon. A message on the site said the ad was no longer available due to "a copyright claim by the PC party." But later Tuesday, the ad resurfaced on Vimeo.com, re-dubbed by the Liberals as "the video Tim Hudak doesn't want you to see."
Other Liberal ads have taken muted shots at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath or tried to link Hudak to former premier Mike Harris.
The NDP has posted perhaps the most aggressive ad so far, with an online video that points to "10 years of Liberal mismanagement." Set against images of a fast-rising number counter that totals wasted tax dollars, the ad pulls no punches, mentioning eHealth, the Ornge air ambulance overspending and the gas plant scandal, along with high hydro rates and CEO salaries. It ends by asking, "Aren't you ready to put the Liberals in the penalty box?"
Within last half hour, the Liberals have pulled down their remix of the PC Jobs Ad: https://t.co/CIo7u8DkcQ— Steven D'Souza (@cbcsteve) May 20, 2014