Bill Walker is president of MidtownPR. He was previously the Ottawa and Washington bureau chief of the Toronto Star. His assessment is part of an occasional series evaluating the effectiveness of political advertising.


Two new third-party ads from the labour-backed group Engage Canada have emerged attacking the Harper Conservatives – and so has a new theory about one of the reasons for an early election call.

Once the prime minister visits the Governor General, Parliament is dissolved and the writ period for the Oct. 19 vote is underway, third-party ads are banned from electronic broadcast.

That means, as unusual as it sounds, among other potential benefits to the Conservatives of an earlier, longer election campaign is the silencing of these kinds of third-party ads attacking the government — although they may still be posted and shared on social media.

Here are the two new Engage Canada ads. 

Ad #1. The Storm

What's the message?

In this TV ad we are told that economists from all over the world (cue the dark storm clouds) are saying that Canada is "sliding into a recession, but the Harper Conservatives refuse to admit it."

It cites the Economist, Bloomberg, The China Post and the Wall Street Journal. It quickly pivots to the government "sticking to" its plan to cut health-care spending by $36 billion "to pay for more tax giveaways to the wealthy and big corporations."

Suddenly the ghost of Mike Duffy appears alongside Prime Minister Stephen Harper while the voiceover says that all voters will be left with is "a gathering storm," followed by the tag line: "The Harper Conservatives, they won't be there for you." 

Why now?

Engage Canada has put out other third-party ads prior to this. With rumours rampant about an early election call, it was get these ads out now, or possibly never. Also, it is consistent with the organization's strategy to target people feeling left behind.

And, while the Conservatives say the next federal budget will be balanced, and that Canada isn't in a recession, an increasing number of experts say it's going to be hard, if not impossible, given the lower-than-expected GDP so far this year. That said, the debate rages over whether Canada is or isn't in a recession.

Kernel of truth here?

There is no arguing that economists and business media are widely speculating that Canada is potentially headed into a recession. One look at the loonie tells the story as it dips to levels not seen since 2009. 

Engage Canada storm ad still

A still from an ad paid for by the labour-backed political action committee Engage Canada. (Engage Canada)

The health-care cut line is one that's often repeated by the Conservatives' opponents, though it's inaccurate: the Conservatives have promised to continue increasing health-care funding, but at a slower rate than in the past.

A 10-year agreement from 2005 to the end of 2014 guaranteed increases of six per cent a year, and the Conservatives continued those increases until 2017-18. But starting that year and continuing until 2023-24, the federal government has pegged the annual increase to nominal GDP, with a promised minimum of three per cent a year. That's less of an increase than the provinces and territories had been getting, but it's still an annual increase.

What score or rating would you give?

It's a good ad — a 4/5, losing points only because it brings too many subjects into one spot: the recession; health-care cuts; tax cuts; and the Senate scandals.

Otherwise, in tone, visuals and sound effects, it works well. The ad's effectiveness could be hampered however if it is quickly silenced by an election call.

Ad #2: Sliding

What's the message?

The is a radio ad that begins with the voice of a woman (representing a middle-class Canadian) who says she never imagined working so hard to live "paycheque-to-paycheque."

Then the woman says Canada is "sliding back into another recession. Who knows if we can even hold on?"

She says (in a worried tone, verging toward exasperation) that "Harper and the Conservatives" could help, but they are "protecting the wealthy and big corporations with even more tax giveaways paid for by sneaking through a huge cut to health care."

"I can't believe I voted for them. I have had enough of Harper. It's time for a change." 

Why now?

See above. This radio ad will have a very short shelf-life if the election is called Aug. 2 as expected. It builds on other ads by Engage Canada that focus on health-care cuts and tax cuts. Specifically, this ad seems targeted at people who voted Conservative in the last election, particularly middle class voters.

Kernel of truth here?

The veracity of the recession, health-care cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy arguments are the same as with all the other Engage Canada ads.

What score or rating would you give?

Keep in mind this ad may not be very effective at all in the real world if no one hears it because an election was called and it was banned from being broadcast. But as a means of tapping into the frustration felt by middle-class voters who do not feel they are getting ahead, it is effective: 4/5.