Referendum ads to get personal

The gloves are off in the referendum campaign as Yes-side strategists roll out a series of negative tv and radio spots to counter a No tide running in Quebec and Western Canada.Proponents of the Charlottetown Accord have so far relied on...

The gloves are off in the referendum campaign as Yes-side strategists roll out a series of negative tv and radio spots to counter a No tide running in Quebec and Western Canada.

Proponents of the Charlottetown Accord have so far relied on a low-key ‘It’s not perfect’ message, backed by long-running emotional tv and radio spots about Canada’s potential.

But with early support for the national Yes campaign in a slump, campaign strategists recognize a hardball pitch aimed squarely at No-side doubts about the deal represents their last chance to bring people who have since become undecided or No voters back on-side.

David Morton, president and chief operating officer of Quaker Oats of Canada and chairman of the Yes advertising effort, says two new tv spots this week will be ‘consequence-based.’

One of the spots, entitled ‘Computer,’ considers how the international community values Canada and could send the dollar down still further if concern about the Oct. 26 vote continues.

The other shows a frying pan bursting into flames, a direct reference to Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who wants to put constitutional issues on the back burner for the next five years.

Further, it is hoped a new theme – ‘Voting No is no solution’ — will help turn the tide for the Yes side.

Vickers and Benson Advertising is producing the Yes side’s tv spots, while Ryan MacDonald Edwards is responsible for the print ads. Radio is being handled by Supercorp Entertainment.

National tv, radio and print advertisements are tested across the country before being produced in Toronto and then sent across Canada for broadcast.

Observers say the Yes side will move more campaign funds to Quebec and b.c. in particular, believing waverers there are ‘teachable’ and could be influenced by stiff-talking spokespeople other than politicians.

For this reason, businesspeople and community leaders will be given greater rein in tv and radio spots now being produced and tested by the Yes committee to undercut the No side’s claim that a victory for their side will not mean Canada breaking up.

Yes strategists privately admit the ordinary and good-natured manner of the seven eminent Canadians who lead the non-partisan Yes committee – which operates separately from the overt political side – have not communicated their message well.

And political leaders who negotiated the deal, and are now marching across the country to back the Yes side, have earned little if any credibility from voters.

So outside Quebec, spokespersons from the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, the Business Council on National Issues and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce will be among those featured in forthcoming Yes side tv and radio spots and mass events.

And in Quebec, the prominent businesspeople Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has recently been pointing to as accord boosters will make appearances.

Morton says Yes side strategists planned to meet the weekend of Oct. 17 to decide on the tone of tv spots for the last week of the campaign.

If the Yes side is still down in the polls, the spots will be harder hitting still. If the polls turn up for the Yes side, then a series of ‘Say Yes to Canada’ spots will be unveiled.

No-side strategists say the dire predictions being used to dissuade Canadians from voting No have so far had little effect. Instead, the No-side pitch has tapped into voter dissatisfaction with the accord.

The Reform Party in particular, drawing on expertise from the Ross Perot campaign in the u.s., has produced sober tv spots long on the deal’s shortcomings and ending with an effective ‘We can do better’ pitch.

And with the prime minister’s popularity tumbling in Western provinces, the Reform party has labelled the accord ‘Mulroney’s deal’ in six 30-second tv and radio spots it will broadcast in the run-up to Oct. 26.

Yes strategists are betting the contest will come down to the wire, when emotional fear-mongering generally works best to woo the undecided.

The No side, on the other hand, must reinforce the support it has so far gained in Western provinces.

‘The No side is using Preston Manning prominently for regional appeal in b.c. and Alberta, which may lose them credibility nationally,’ says Gordon Thomas, a marketing professor at the University of Manitoba.

‘But they know they only need to win one or two provinces to sink the deal,’ Thomas says.

Paul Attallah, associate professor at the Carleton University School of Journalism in Ottawa, argues the prospect of the deal being rejected will affect the message from the three political parties on the Yes side as they look beyond the campaign.

‘The political parties will reposition their message and divide along partisan lines as each considers what they will do after Oct. 26,’ Attallah says.

Both the No and Yes sides will benefit from free air time given in the last days of the campaign under the referendum’s rules.