What an ad buy during the Raptors playoff run says about Conservative strategy

The Conservative Party spent a substantial sum on an ad introducing Raptors fans to party leader Andrew Scheer — a tactic that reflects both the party's deep pockets and Scheer's lingering low profile with voters.

Flush with cash, Andrew Scheer's team badly wants Canadians to get to know him

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer announces his immigration policy at an event hall in Toronto on May 28, 2019. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

As far as television audiences in Canada go, you can't do much better than live sports events. It's a bonus when a Canadian team is in the hunt for a playoff win.

On Sunday, more than 10 million Canadians watched all or part of Game 2 of the NBA finals, when the Golden State Warriors beat the Toronto Raptors 109-104.

It was the most-watched NBA game in Canadian history — but the Conservative Party of Canada may have been the real winner of the night.

The party purchased ad time during the game, using it to air a get-to-know-you spot featuring leader Andrew Scheer in front of his childhood home.

The buy says a lot about the party's strengths and weaknesses, just over four months to go before election day.

'Premium placement'

"There's so much hype around the Raptors right now, and everyone's just really excited about the team's prospect of winning a championship," said Daniel Kirsch, president of Kirsch Communications. 

"For clients to associate their brands with a product like this is just a premium placement and amazing exposure for them."

Kirsch said advertising rates are strictly confidential and would not offer a ballpark estimate of what an ad like this would cost.

Political sources say each 30-second TV ad costs between $50,000 and $80,000.

"The Raptors are Canada's only basketball team, so everyone nationwide is really watching this program right now," Kirsch said.

The Conservative Party can easily afford this kind of airtime, given how much more it has fundraised than other political parties.

Money to burn

In the first quarter of 2019, the party raised over $8 million, more than double the $3.8 million the Liberals raised. The NDP brought in just $1.2 million.

"We're very happy with where we're at, as far as the fundraising that's coming in," said Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party.

He said he did not want to disclose publicly how much the party has raised to date in the second quarter, but confirmed that the fundraising team has been forced to expand in order to process all of the donations.

"We've had to bring in some temporary help, for sure. The response rate for our donation asks, our fundraising asks, has been very good," Hann said.

Flush with cash, the Conservatives decided to copy a tactic employed by the 2015 Liberal election campaign team, which pre-purchased ad spots for broadcasts of Toronto Blue Jays games.

Justin Trudeau in the "escalator" ad - one of the more high-profile Liberal Party TV spots of the 2015 campaign. (Liberal Party of Canada/YouTube)

The Liberals bought the air time before the Jays made it into the playoffs that October, which meant they paid a much lower rate for the space. Commercials featuring leader Justin Trudeau reached an average of 4.8 million Canadians in one game alone.

A senior Conservative source said several ads were purchased well in advance of the Raptors' successes. A second source said that when Scheer's team realized Toronto could make it into the finals, it changed its approach.

The right audience

Rather than buy a handful of spots that could run during any NBA playoff game, the Conservatives opted to pool their money and trade in multiple lower-value spots for one 30-second ad during Sunday's game.

Melissa Lantsman, a former Conservative strategist, said there's another benefit to this ad buy.

"The Raptors generally have an audience that is very much 905-base, very much immigrant-based. And that's exactly who Andrew Scheer wants to target," Lantsman told CBC News.

The term "905-base" refers to the area code covering the diverse communities surrounding Toronto, including Mississauga, Brampton and Hamilton. All three major parties plan to target this vote-rich region during the fall campaign.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer acknowledge the crowd while on stage at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Thursday, August 23, 2018. Ontario is a critical election battleground for all three major parties. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

"To have these ads air during a sports event that is watched from coast to coast, you don't get that kind of audience with hockey, because we've got a number of hockey teams across the country," Lantsman said.

"You don't get that audience with anything else in Canada like you've had with this historical Raptors run."

Even with the record amount of cash coming in, both sources said the election team is going to be careful with its money.

The Conservatives don't want to spend too much early in the summer, when not all Canadians are fully engaged in the election campaign. But if the NDP and Liberals start dropping ads on traditional broadcasters, Scheer's team is prepared to match their strategy.

Saving money for a do-over

One source also pointed out that the party needs to be prepared for the possibility of a second federal election in the not-so-distant future.

The Conservatives recognize there is a real possibility that Canadians will elect a minority government this fall. Depending on support and makeup, the Conservatives want to have enough cash in the bank to campaign aggressively if a minority government falls before the end of a four-year mandate.

Sunday's ad also highlights the biggest weakness the Conservatives are trying to overcome: Scheer's lack of name recognition. If Scheer is going to be the next prime minister, Conservative sources recognize they need to do much more to make him a household name.

"It's something that all opposition leaders and opposing parties have to look at, in how they get their name out, and … their message out," Hann said.

A prime minister is always going to have better name recognition than an opposition party leader — but the current prime minister has also become more widely recognized than his predecessors were.

Scheer the suburbanite

Trudeau has tried to build a reputation as a feminist and, as one of the last vocal defenders of the traditional world order, has attracted some adoring international media coverage — particularly when he's compared to his American counterpart. He even landed a cover-story spread in Rolling Stone magazine.

The Conservatives plan to counter that narrative by portraying Scheer as a relatable dad from the suburbs.

Which is why Sunday's ad featured Scheer talking about his working-class upbringing in Ottawa, and was filmed in front of the townhouse complex where he grew up.

"In terms of these ads, and his introduction to the Canadian people, I couldn't think of anything smarter," Lantsman said.

It's not clear whether this strategy is having an impact on the Canadian public. While recent polling shows the Conservatives leading the Liberals, much of that has to do with self-inflicted mistakes made by Trudeau and his team.

The prime minister's personal brand took a hit during the SNC-Lavalin scandal, especially after two prominent female cabinet ministers quit and publicly questioned his leadership. The Liberals are also still trying to recover from the fallout of the Mark Norman affair.

Trudeau has rebounded slightly in the polls recently, but that has more to do with the province of Ontario than anything else.

Some voters appear to be feeling remorseful that they elected Progressive Conservative Doug Ford as premier, and that may be rubbing off on the federal Conservatives, to Trudeau's benefit.

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