'Stephen Harper isn't perfect' ad makes rookie communications mistake

Saying "Stephen Harper isn’t perfect" in a campaign ad shows a peculiar way of addressing party missteps or the potential need for policy improvements, and misses more positive ways to frame the conversation around these kinds of talking points.

Ad Hawk: Experienced Conservative campaign team's clip raises more questions than it answers

'Stephen Harper isn't perfect,' the Conservative ad acknowledges, but without spelling out those imperfections, it raises more questions than it answers, says communications expert Kerry McKibbin. (CBC News/Conservative Party of Canada/YouTube)

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

A new ad released by the Conservative Party shows a series of Canadians talking about the economy and their fears around what might happen if a non-Conservative government were to be elected into office.

Note: Ads are produced by the candidates, their parties or their agents. They are embedded here for informational purposes only and their placement does not constitute an endorsement by CBC News.

What's the message?

It's a step away from "Justin Trudeau — just not ready," but perhaps not a prudent one. The ad is a summation of Stephen Harper's core message for the past several months: that he is the only leader who can be trusted with the economy. But it has prompted commentary (and hilarity) in social media, in particular about the line "Stephen Harper isn't perfect," a peculiar way of addressing party missteps or potential need for policy improvements.

Why now?

The "not perfect" line is likely intended to acknowledge and defuse some of the negative headlines recently plaguing the party, such as its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Peegate, and the Duffy scandal.

However, this negative slant is a rookie communications mistake, which is particularly bizarre given it is being made by an experienced campaign team. Imagine a cereal company saying: "Our oatmeal isn't perfect, but it's better than other oatmeal." There are more positive ways to frame the conversation around these kinds of talking points.

As well, without specificity about how or why Harper is not perfect, it raises more questions than it answers.

Kernel of truth:

Other than the statement that Trudeau plans to run deficits, the ad is mostly opinion or platitudes rather than fact. For example, "The NDP can't manage money," and "We can depend on [Harper]." As well, it may be myopic to continue to singularly tout the Conservatives' economic superiority in light of the recent announcement that the economy slipped into a recession. 


One of the most unfortunate things about the ad is that it uses real Canadians to deliver scripted lines. Even the cadence of speech is scripted. This kind of forced dialogue is also a rookie advertising mistake.

Had these lines been off the cuff, the "not perfect" comment could have been endearing and the rest of the content might have been persuasive. Instead, party talking points coming out of Canadians' mouths feel not only disingenuous, but awkward and uncomfortable.

Interestingly, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Trudeau have each had at least two commercials in which they speak directly into the camera. If these points are Harper's, one wonders why he doesn't deliver them himself. Did the Conservative Party test something like this in focus groups and find the results lacking? If so, it may present an advertising challenge for the Conservatives given their approach to date has been so leader-focused.

Overall, this ad feels like another attempt to control messaging so tightly that it generates the opposite result — a negative media and social media conversation that Harper cannot control.

I give it a 2/10.

Kerry McKibbin is a Toronto advertising professional who specializes in multi-channel communications including digital and social media strategy. Kerry has worked on some of Canada's biggest brands and campaigns and was previously director of marketing for TEDxToronto.


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