Negative advertising on the rise

As the Nov. 27 federal vote draws near, the political barbs are flying fast and furious. And it's a safe bet that election ads will start to turn nasty before this ordeal is over....

As the Nov. 27 federal vote draws near, the political barbs are flying fast and furious. And it’s a safe bet that election ads will start to turn nasty before this ordeal is over.

So-called ‘attack’ advertising usually doesn’t begin until about two weeks before the vote. But this year it will probably come earlier, says University of Windsor professor Walter Soderlund, co-editor of Television in Canadian Elections: The Attack Mode, 1993.

Indeed, with the Canadian Alliance eating into a strong, early lead for the Liberals, and both the Progressive Conservatives and NDP fighting for their very survival, this could be one of the ugliest elections in years, he says.

Ads that attack the person or policies of an opponent have existed pretty much since the advent of electoral democracy, but have only recently begun to play a major role in Canadian elections. In fact, 1993 was the first time such negative ads represented more than 50% of the spots aired during a federal election, Soderlund says.

In the U.S., by contrast, attack advertising rose to prominence almost two decades earlier, and tends to be much harsher in tone than the Canadian variety.

Why the difference? The most obvious answer is that negative ads don’t work as well here because we’re…well, Canadian.

‘Clearly in Canada we don’t like people who win at any cost,’ says Andy Macaulay, a founding partner of Toronto agency Zig. ‘We don’t like people to succeed at other people’s expense. To win an election as the result of slamming the other guys, I don’t think that’s our Canadian definition of leadership.’

Nevertheless, Macaulay agrees that there does seem to be more election advertising with this sort of negative tone. And he senses more of it in consumer advertising as well.

‘In the commercial world generally, advertising has a chippier tone to it these days,’ he says. ‘All you need to do is to take a look at Bell and Rogers taking indirect and often direct pokes at one another’s technology.’

A few months ago, for example, Rogers@Home launched its ‘Download Rigor Mortis’ campaign, which attacks the effectiveness of dial-up Internet connections. Because one of the major players in that category is Bell Sympatico, the belligerent intent was fairly obvious. Bell shot back with advertising of its own in a similar vein.

Embarking on such a strategy in a consumer campaign brings serious risks, argues Neale Halliday, senior vice-president, account planning with Toronto-based BBDO Canada.

‘In the commercial world…we spend our time trying to build goodwill, loyalty and relationships between brands and people that will last week in and week out,’ he says. ‘You can’t afford to dick around with people’s loyalty or their attitudes, because you’re going to have to be there again next week.’

In the case of Bell and Rogers, Halliday argues, these attack ads won’t build the brands. If anything, they’ll cancel each other out, leaving consumers to fall back on previously developed feelings about the brands.

Parties and leaders can afford to use this kind of tactic in an election campaign because they’ve got five years afterward to mend fences and build a more positive identity, Halliday says. But consumer brands don’t have that luxury.

Macaulay agrees. Brands, he says are built strategically, with the goal being to win a piece of the consumer’s mind. So advertisers want the public to have a consistent and favourable image of a brand.

While agency types may not approve of negative advertising, there’s a reason it has become such a popular election tactic: For better or worse, it does the job. (The exception being ad hominem attacks – like the infamous 1993 Conservative spot mocking Jean Chretien’s facial distortion – which tend to court backlash.)

In an election campaign, political parties have just a few short weeks to sell themselves and their leaders. In this situation, Soderlund says, an attack ad will have more of an effect on the voters.

‘Negative information has a greater impact on solidifying decisions than positive information,’ he says. In other words, an ad that says a politician is a nice guy stands less chance of being remembered than one that describes his rival as a threat to the voter’s lifestyle or precious bodily fluids.

Maybe so, says Brian Harrod, co-founder of Toronto-based Harrod & Mirlin/FCB. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. To illustrate his point, he recalls a workshop presented by a British planner some years ago.

‘He grabbed somebody in the front row and said ‘What’s your name?’ The man said ‘Fred.’ ‘Well, Fred,’ he said, ‘I want to tell you that I’m the best fucking creative person in the city. The point here is that the next day you’ll remember me – but you’ll think I’m a total asshole.”

That’s a point worth pondering, Harrod says. ‘I wonder if this negative advertising is truly motivating when it comes time to cast your vote.’