Canada election 2015: Barrage of ads has only just begun

The political advertising is certain to be dominated by those who can afford it over the next 11 weeks, but past history has shown the wealthiest campaigns don't always win, writes CBC correspondent Adrienne Arsenault.

But voter turnout won't be promoted by Elections Canada this time around

Election ad barrage has only just begun

8 years ago
Duration 3:56
Featured VideoCBC's Adrienne Arsenault looks at the rules around political advertising

Now that the Canadian election has started, spare a moment to consider what has to stop.

Remember those government of Canada ads that choked the airwaves this spring and summer with their talk of the dangers of marijuana, or the ones that glowingly celebrated Canada's history? Unless they are considered absolutely
necessary they will have to stop. 

Gone too are those announcements and re-announcements of funding injections that cropped up like weeds this summer. Election rules decree they disappear.

Nonetheless, you know the real barrage is only now beginning. The political advertising is certain to be dominated by those who can afford it. That means the Conservatives with coffers almost equal to those combined of the NDP and the Liberals.

The money buys repetition. It already has with the Conservative ads declaring Justin Trudeau is just not ready. They've already aired so often the mantra is starting to stick, forcing Trudeau to spend his precious funds in his own defence, creating the sort of "of course I am ready" spots.

So, yes, money matters but it hasn't always won the day. There are plenty of stories of political upsets in Canada when voters just seemed to get fed up and punished the more powerful party, regardless of the size of the ad buy. 

And going big with ads has sometimes been dangerous for even the wealthiest campaigns.

Conservative Kim Campbell released a spot in 1993 that came to be known as "The Face" ad. It was a series of still photos of Jean Chretien with a voice-over asking: "Is this a Prime Minister?"

Viewers got the unkind point. It was an ad that seemed to mock Chretien's facial paralysis and voters were incensed. The reaction to that ad pretty much sealed the Conservative party's defeat.

For all the ads, good and horrible, that are about to flood your airwaves, there are some you may now never get to see on TV or hear on radio. Those are the offerings from well financed interest groups like Engage Canada, an anti-Harper group. A few of its ads had already aired and the next few weeks were likely supposed to be their big push.

But since the election was called early, the rules kick in early. That means these third-party organizations become severely restricted in what they can do and how much they can spend. Many will have to pull their planned ads. 

Social media effect could be tested

What will happen to them?

It is likely some will instead live in the world of social media, beyond the constraints of election rules. That may mean they are shared and shared again. But will that matter on voting day? The worry some have about social media remains the demographic realities. While the age of Facebook users is growing, it is still the case that the bulk of Canadians with social media profiles are under 45 years of age. The bulk of Canadians who vote are over 45. So, how much will it really matter, votewise of social media users don't actually show up on election day.

It's hard to really gauge the electoral influence of social media but don't count it out.

Back in 2010, on the day of the U.S. congressional elections, Facebook conducted an experiment on behalf of a university in California. It was a test to see if people would be influenced to vote if they saw that their friends had voted.

Facebook put a banner on 61 million users profiles simply saying, "Today is election day." On some accounts Facebook users were shown links to the nearest polling stations. Others were shown pictures of friends who had ticked a box saying, "I voted."

At the end of the day the numbers suggested people were indeed nudged to vote after seeing that their friends had done so. There was a jump in voter turnout that year and it's been argued that 0.6 per cent of that jump could be explained by that Facebook message. Now, 0.6 per cent may not sound like a lot, but in reality it was estimated to be just over 300,000 extra voters. Imagine the fortunes that could be changed in a tight race.

Encouraging people to vote is a pretty benign message to spread and there was a time when Elections Canada used to run all sorts of ads on radio and TV based on boosting turnout.

In this era of low turnouts can we expect to see more of those ads? Not a chance.

Harper's "Fair Elections Act" of last year has clauses that mean Elections Canada can no longer run ads pushing Canadians to vote. The agency can discuss the need to vote but only in programs or events directed at non-voters, say, children. Not terribly effective in increasing turnout for this election.

A former head of Elections Canada, the openly frustrated Jean-Pierre Kingsley, describes the new provision this way.

"It's like telling the commissioner of official languages to talk about the importance of bilingualism but only outside Canada," said Kingsley.

Just one of the new rules for a new election reality.


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.