Analysis

Engage Canada's anti-Conservative TV ad all about timing

In addition to a spate of ads from the political parties this month is one from Engage Canada, a group whose stated intent is to make the Conservative party "unelectable." Its claims have been contested - but does it work?

Ad Hawk | Ad from union-backed 'grassroots' group attempts to cast Tories in 'us vs. them' terms

Stephen Harper's Conservatives are the target of a new ad by group called Engage Canada, which says it is working to make Harper's party "unelectable." (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Ad Hawk is an occasional series evaluating the effectiveness of political advertising.


The political parties have ramped up television and radio advertising in recent weeks as they anticipate this fall's federal election. But they are not the only ones booking airtime.

One ad that made its debut this month comes from Engage Canada, a group whose stated intent is to make the Conservative party "unelectable." Engage calls itself a non-partisan, grassroots organization, though is headed by former Liberal and NDP strategists and it counts unions among its donors.

The ad, titled "Neglect," takes direct aim at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government with the claim that under Harper, incomes among the wealthiest five per cent have risen much faster than for average Canadians. It also attacks the Conservatives by claiming the government hasn't done enough for job creation and has cut health-care funding.

A frame from Engage Canada's 'Neglect' TV spot, which takes aim at the Conservative government's record. (Youtube.com)

The ad's claims have been denounced by commentators on the right and questioned by others — but how does it succeed as a piece of political advertising? We asked brand and marketing executive Franke Rodriguez for his take.

What's the message?

The message here is direct, and it's not that inequality is rising. The message is that the Conservatives don't care that inequality is rising — ​and affecting you, the average Canadian voter.

Kernel of truth here?

Socially conservative. Hawkish. Backed by high-income Canadians​...

The kernel of truth here is tied to the Conservative party's "shrinking tent" — that many who typically identified themselves as Conservatives have said now excludes them.

The logic, then, is easy — if the Conservatives are for "them" (the groups listed above), then they're not for "us" (everybody else). It's easy to internalize, share​​ and is a sentiment already being vocalized by many Canadians.

Why now?

In a word, TIMING — for ​a few different reasons:​

  • Basic: Campaign flighting, given federal rules, means this is the time a group like this would have to launch their efforts: bloody the Conservative campaign's nose before the federal election ad spending rules tie their hands by limiting third-party advertising.
  • Standard: It helps establish a narrative early on that will likely be a dominant one from the opposition to the public going into the campaign, namely, that none of the Conservatives — Harper to backbencher — cares about the average Canadian.
  • Advanced: Going back to the kernel of truth around "them" versus "us," the uproar around bill C-24 — the changes to the Citizenship Act, and the "second-class of Canadians" it allegedly creates — has hit a nerve, especially in minority and immigrant-heavy urban centres, and crystallized a suspicion of the Conservative Party. Running this ad now is an effective way of completing and cementing that suspicion with those voters​ ​and turning it into a firmly held belief.

It also combats ​the Conservative attack ads on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, which (anecdotally) are falling flat, especially amongst millennial and Gen-Z voters, whose news outlet of choice — Vice — excoriated the ad in a manner only proving how off the mark for this audience the Conservative message is.

What score or rating would you give?

9 - Rhetorically solid and delivered with a polish that, frankly, one would expect from an American PAC. In fact, I bet it would work probably very effectively in a U.S. general election. Well done, and well-timed.


Franke Rodriguez is president of Anomaly Canada, a multidisciplinary marketing communications firm/advertising agency. He was born and raised in New York where he spent five years as the director of brand management at the company's head office. His assessment is part of an occasional series evaluating the effectiveness of political advertising.

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