20 April 2011

The Dark, Seamy Sideyards of Election Advertising

Funny thing about ad messages.  You can plant them, water them, sun them, and (yes) fertilize them. But what grows doesn't always look like the picture on the seed package.

In 1993 Canada's Conservatives launched a TV ad that none-too-subtly used imagery that emphasized the partial paralysis in the face of Liberal leader Jean Chretien.  Roll the first part of this CBC report- including Chretien's play-it-like-a-harp response, and you get a taste of how violently this snapped back into the Tories' faces.

Even today, at some level, campaign ad-makers (whose tribe dwells in lands largely unknown to your humble servant) try to incorporate in their ads some schoolyard ridicule tied to appearance, demeanor, race, or physical non-conformity.

It must be apparent enough for it to resonate with its target viewer, yet buried enough so as not to provoke accusations of schoolyard bullying.

Enter this guy:

Senator John Kerry posed a marketing threat to handlers of the Bush re-election campaign of 2004.  In marketing parlance, Bush needed to 'own' patriotic militarism.  But Kerry had him outflanked with a record that pushed all the right buttons with the American public:  a distinguished service record in Vietnam combat, including three (count 'em) Purple Hearts- then a compelling anti-war stance upon his return.

(Sure, we're flitting from Canada to the US and back: but this thread of thinking remains intact.

Even the greatest pro-Bush ads could not elevate the President above his rival in this hugely important, emotional category.

The only tactic available were negative ads.  The deadly power of negative ads is that they do not have to prove anything, or convince anyone outright.  They need simply to plant and water and (yes) fertilize seeds of doubt in the viewer's mind.

Here's the problem:  had the Bush campaign launched the 'Swiftboat' campaign against John Kerry (the nickname for the campaign to discredit Kerry's military credentials), the low-road cache of this approach could have leaped up and bit Mr. Bush on his presidential tuccus.

So a faceless "3rd Party" group was assembled:   SwiftVets and POW's for Truth, who set about 'unhero'ing the Democratic nominee:

3rd part election ads allowed George Bush to stroll the high road, disavowing the shenanigans of the SwiftVets, and insulating his campaign from the backlash that stung Canada's Tories in 1993.

Once George Bush won reelection, the SwiftVets disbanded.

Mission Accomplished.

The solution? Regulation won't work.  Political ads are virtually un-regulated- the biggest ticket-to-lie in all of advertising.  The reason?  No ad regulator wants to play referee during a campaign, or break up scraps among partisans.

So the rules that apply to advertisers in Canada and the US don't apply to campaign ads.

With free speech protections in Canada's Charter of Rights, and the asinine ruling on campaign spending by the US Supreme Court, 3rd party election ads will thrive as the new supermarkets of slander come campaign time.

The solution is an educated viewer who can see these attack campaigns for what they are.

1 comment:

  1. Ah!, the problem with Canadian politics is Canadians! "The solution is an educated viewer..." I hold little hope. Once in a while they accidentally vote with APPARENT intelligence. I live in Toronto where Rob-Doug Ford is Mayor(s) AND with a 70% approval rating!
    We did not demolish Mulroney until the pain was unbearable and undeniable, same story on Harris, provincially. I must assume my countrymen are willfully ignorant and masochistic. They don't vote, they emote.