The political attack ad that backfired badly in 1993

A TV ad that asked, "Is this a prime minister?" urged voters to "think twice" about electing a government led by Jean Chrétien in 1993.

TV commercials used 'very unflattering' photos of Liberal Jean Chrétien

Tory attack ad backfires badly in 1993 campaign

29 years ago
Duration 3:29
A TV commercial asking "Is this a prime minister?" over images of Jean Chrétien's face is quickly withdrawn

With 10 days to go before Election Day in 1993, the Progressive Conservatives had a new message in their arsenal.

"Think twice," urged a TV commercial with a foreboding soundtrack.

The new ad asked, "Is this a prime minister?" while showing photos of then-Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien. 

On The National on Oct. 15, 1993, reporter Wendy Mesley described those photos as "very unflattering."

Not a problem ... at first

After Progressive Conservative leader Kim Campbell saw the ad, she told reporters it would be pulled from the air "as soon as it is technically possible." (The National/CBC Archives)

The next morning, before she'd seen the commercial in question, PC Leader Kim Campbell didn't seem to think there was a problem. 

"My understanding is that the pictures are very much like the pictures on the cover of Maclean's magazine this week," she told a crush of reporters.

But after seeing them later that day, she met with reporters again with a different view.

"I've asked my staff to change the ads, and to withdraw these ones as soon as it is technically possible to do so," said Campbell. 

Chretien's reaction

The ad used "very unflattering shots" of Liberal leader Jean Chrétien, according to reporter Wendy Mesley. (The National/CBC Archives)

Chrétien had seen the ads the night before.

"They tried to make fun of the way I look," he told people assembled at a rally. "God gave me a physical defect, and I have accepted that since [I was] a kid."

According to the Globe and Mail, Chrétien was affected by "partial paralysis" of his face, which he believed was a birth defect and which his mother thought was the result of a childhood disease or virus.

Mesley's report talked to PC candidates who were unhappy with the ads, calling them "an act of desperation," "totally inappropriate," and "in poor taste." 

'They have a point to make'

"You can't argue with people when they say they've taken offence," said strategist John Tory. "So we'll just carry on." (The National/CBC Archives)

Progressive Conservative campaign chairman John Tory, who became the mayor of Toronto in 2014, defended the ads. 

"They have a point to make," he said. "Far from making fun of anybody, they're trying to ask a very serious question."

He showed a sheaf of newspaper photos of Chrétien and said what had been in his party's ads was no different.

After Campbell consulted with senior advisors, she apologized for the "Think Twice" ads. 

"I would apologize to Mr. Chrétien. To anyone who found them offensive," she said, when announcing the ads would be pulled. 

Tory said the campaign to challenge the Liberals would continue. 

"You can't argue with people when ... they say they've taken offence," he said. "So, we'll have other ads on and we'll just carry on questioning Mr. Chrétien." 

The Progressive Conservatives lost the election 10 days later with two seats to the Liberals' 177.

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