Marketing political parties: Who’s doing the best job?

O Canada, there is a whole lot of American-style mudslinging during the 2004 Canadian federal election. And whether you 'Choose Your Canada' or 'Demand Better' might depend on how you respond to advertising and media spin that is less about platform and more about fear and negativity, according to analysts.

O Canada, there is a whole lot of American-style mudslinging during the 2004 Canadian federal election. And whether you ‘Choose Your Canada’ or ‘Demand Better’ might depend on how you respond to advertising and media spin that is less about platform and more about fear and negativity, according to analysts.

The first volley actually came from the Liberals before the writ was dropped May 23, with stephenharpersaid.ca, a Web-based promotion holding the Conservative leader’s feet to the flames of his own out-of-context words, as in: ‘Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country.’

Not to be outdone, the Tories launched teammartinsaid.ca within hours of their Grit foes, replete with a sour rebuttal that focused on the ‘hypocrisy’ of the Liberal insiders.

Tit-for-tat campaigning, of course, is nothing new for elections but low-road tactics have the potential to backfire with voters, says Lindsay Meredith, a professor of marketing strategy in the school of business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

‘Never wrestle with pigs,’ he says. ‘You both get dirty and the pig likes it. The back room boys need to go back to marketing 101.’

Negative campaigning – like the Kim Campbell Conservative government’s infamous poke at former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s trademark facial droop – contributes to a fatigued voter syndrome, now decades old, in which voters elect governments based on what hurts least, not what works best, says Meredith. Negative campaigning, he adds, is not a strategy that works to sell other products or we would see it used to promote cars, cheese, computers and other commodities.

For its part, the Liberal Party poo-poos criticism that it is partaking in negative and fear-based campaigning. Steven MacKinnon, director of communications for the Liberal Party, says the anti-Harper Web site has not been a priority during the official campaign. ‘We reject that premise,’ he says. ‘The [Web site was] informational. We wonder why [the Tories] are not willing to stand by their leader’s own words.’

Like the other parties, the Liberals are not willing to say how much they spent on election advertising. That is disclosed after the election. The overall Liberal campaign cost – including all the elements of electioneering – is about $17 million, says MacKinnon.

The Liberals’ ‘Choose Your Canada’ campaign, created by a consortium of agencies known as ‘Red Leaf,’ has rolled out in television spots, including a B.C.-specific spot highlighting former NPD heavyweights who made the Liberal switch, and a slew of bilingual ads for Quebec, each featuring a casual Prime Minister Paul Martin speaking into the camera. Liberal radio spots are regional and print advertisements in major newspapers are dedicated to policy announcements. The Liberals are doing little in the way of Internet promotion, outside of the stephenharpersaid.ca site and the party Web site.

Also like all the parties, the Liberals are convinced their messages are resonating with Canadians – even as the media is filled with headlines speculating that Liberal momentum is slowing and a Tory government is a distinct possibility.

The Conservative Party of Canada, meanwhile, declines to discuss dollars and media rollouts. Other sources estimate its overall campaign budget to be about $14 million.

The Tories’ slogan ‘Demand Better’ directly leverages the Liberals’ sponsorship scandal vulnerabilities, suggesting that the outgoing government is plagued by ‘corruption, waste and irresponsibility,’ explains spokesperson Katie Martin. One of the three TV spots in the campaign, created by Watermark Advertising Design of Calgary, illustrates the alleged Liberal waste by crumpling dollar bills and throwing them away.

The NDP, meanwhile, has taken a different tack. Leader charisma is driving its advertising strategy, which carries the slogan ‘New Energy – A Positive Choice.’ New leader Jack Layton is working overtime, especially on the free ink offered by the media during an election campaign.

The Prime Minster and Leader of the Opposition have little trouble generating news when they speak. The smaller parties have to be that much more wily. Case in point: Layton’s ability to ignite lurid headlines that Martin’s policies are contributing to the deaths of Toronto’s homeless.

‘The absence of earned media shows a lack of momentum,’ says Brad Lavigne, NDP director of communications. The NDP’s overall campaign budget is about $12 million, he says, which pays for national television, local radio and print advertising, including a reach into the ethnic media. ‘Our overall strategy is to get national coverage,’ says Lavigne. ‘There is no market we are not aggressively pursuing.’

He adds: ‘Four years ago, the Internet was important. This election it’s vital.’ The party’s online strategy includes blogs, such as Layton’s Diary, which is designed to be more personal than policy-driven.

Meanwhile, the Bloc Quebecois is spending five times as much on Internet advertising (banner ads, Web sites and virtual postcards) as they did last election – a reflection of the party’s skew to the younger demographics.

Eighty per cent of the undisclosed marketing budget is dedicated to television and radio spots in Quebec, says Martin Viau, BQ marketing director, while 20% will be dedicated to outdoor advertising and bar restroom advertising, especially in the final two weeks of the election period. There is almost no print advertising, he adds, with the exception of individual candidates independently funding ads in smaller community newspapers.

The overall campaign theme, says Viau, is that ‘the BQ protects our differences and defends our interests.’ By leveraging the recent sponsorship scandal, the BQ is positioned as ‘Un parti propre au Quebec’ – a French pun that suggests the BQ is the proper and clean (as in scandal-free) choice for Quebec voters.

Strategy asked three politically unaffiliated creative directors to evaluate the parties’ campaigns for success, reach and strategy.

Marc Stoiber, VP, ECD, Grey Worldwide Canada, Vancouver

Attack ads reek of desperation. There is always going to be somebody who tries to get an edge by bringing the other guy down. The Liberals’ stephenharpersaid.ca is no exception. The end effect? I didn’t think ‘that Harper character is a dirty so-and-so.’ I just thought ‘those Liberals are a sad, desperate bunch.’

Politics is a dirty game and they succumbed to the lowest common denominator. The Liberals have a long track record and if they are unpopular it’s because of their track record. Canadians don’t judge their candidates on the facts, but their characters.

[Negative advertising] doesn’t work. It damages the Liberals’ character. In the television ads, Martin has that ‘millionaire next door’ look – a nice enough guy, but he’s a meat puppet. His party faithful have scripted and focus-grouped him so that he is about as interesting as elevator music. He’s very mundane at a time when the Liberals have this reputation of the old-boy-network working against them.

Martin could have said, ‘No, we’re the new Liberals. We stand for something much better.’ He missed an opportunity and now he looks same old, same old. If the Liberals have something insightful and smart to say about where they want to take the future, they should say it.

Tony Miller, VP and CD, Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG, Toronto

In the early days of the campaign, the Conservatives are winning the race.

This is a new party licking its chops because they can smell the possibility of a minority government.

Harper is positioning himself as moderate. It’s that age-old strategy of campaigning from the middle and then governing from where you are politically. He’s trying to keep the yahoo factor under control during the election and giving people a sense of comfort. His ads are saying reasonable things. ‘Demand Better’ is a pretty strong tag line – much better than ‘It’s time for change.’ It refers to the sponsorship scandal without actually mentioning it.

We can assume he’s running different ads in different demographics, even different ads in urban and rural markets because he can’t just appeal to the angry white guy. The press is even clamoring for change with some members of the Ontario press giving Harper a lot of slack. [As a line of attack, however,] the sponsorship scandal is done, a rotting corpse. Now he’s got to say what he’s going to do. When your opponent is busy shooting himself, stay out of the way. I’d advise him to stay away from negative ads. The last thing Harper wants is for people to feel sorry for Paul Martin.

Daniel Charron, VP and CD, Republik Advertising & Design, Montreal

[The smaller parties] are creating enough noise, at least with the budgets they have.

If it hadn’t been for the sponsorship scandal, the Bloc Quebecois may have disappeared. The only reason the Bloc is popular is because of the sponsorship scandal.

The BQ is always in attack mode. That’s the only thing they have to do is attack because they will never get power. They see themselves and project themselves as watchdogs. Us against them. That’s what is keeping them alive…showing the Liberal party as the same even though they’ve changed.

With the NDP, it’s all the same but with changed colors and a lot of emphasis on the leader. Jack Layton is doing a great job image-wise and a great job renewing the party. He’s good on TV, a great orator, good with the media, a good spark plug. [There is] not a lot of money for the advertising, so they are using him more as a PR gimmick.

It’s the intelligent way to use him. Out of the three main parties, they are so far ahead image-wise. They are working hard on this guy and showing that they have an alternative.