Skip to main content

You can tell a lot about a political leader by how they attempt to use television to communicate a message. Doug Ford doesn’t seem to be attempting anything at all.

While watching Ford engage fitfully and testily with the media in the Ontario election campaign, a picture emerges – he neither talks the talk nor walks the walk of a leader intent on delivering change. The vagueness is what sticks, not the message.

Until recently, multiple polls promised a Progressive Conservative majority government in Ontario with Ford as premier. That would mean a sharp turn away from the policies and priorities of previous governments. The last time that happened was in 1995 when Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution swept Ontario. How did Harris do it? I remember it well. One of the first pieces of media analysis I wrote for this newspaper was about the Harris team’s cunning use of TV news.

An overview of the campaign revealed that Harris and his handlers displayed a stunning grasp of the simple-minded recipes for TV news reporting. Harris sold his ideas through the news – he provided the perfect backdrops and props for illustrating his policies and TV reporters lapped it up. With media smarts rarely seen at that point in Canadian politics, Harris used TV news to the same effect as TV advertising.

First, unlike Ford, Harris had a media bus following him everywhere. The media on the bus didn’t amount to distraction or annoyance. They served Harris’s purpose. A Global TV reporter I interviewed at the time told me, “They went overboard providing for TV. They provided runners to get our tapes back to the station on time. They even hired a plane to make sure we were on time and, in fact, we never missed a deadline.”

What the Harris campaign provided, on deadline, were the perfect visuals. Just in time for the lunch-hour news, the suppertime news and the late-night news, the Harris team offered simple, emphatic images to sell his platform. Televised scenes connected the policy to a simple image and nailed the issue. Some were classics of simple-minded messaging.

Harris unveiled a flatbed truck with 31 chairs to illustrate how many seats at Queen’s Park weren’t needed. The truck was shown driving away from the legislature. He visited a Consumer’s Distributing store to show what voters could buy with money from tax cuts. VCRs and computers were shown. He stood in the SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) to ask viewers to imagine all the seats filled by welfare recipients. He unveiled a sign announcing a town called “Welfare, Ontario. Population 1,300,000.” The point was easily made that welfare recipients constitute an entire city. TV news loved it all and viewers got the message.

The maestro behind the image campaign was Tom Long, businessman and veteran adviser to PC and Conservative leaders. Back then, he readily admitted the plan was to use images on TV news as persuasive de facto TV ads. “The TV images were the pivotal points and they determined how people digested the information,” he said. “Six months ago, we mapped out the illustrative image for each day of the campaign – like the truck with the empty chairs to show how many MPP’s seats Mike would remove from Queen’s Park. Television drives the print medium and a successful image on the TV news can generate a week’s worth of coverage in print. Print and TV perform different roles and TV just doesn’t cover issues in depth. And most people sum up an election in terms of TV images.”

That was then and this is now, the digital age, the age of social media. Ford’s team is largely avoiding TV news. The messaging comes through a small number of brief televised ads and what is – literally – simulated news reportage on Facebook.

The FordNation page is mission-control for messaging. Videos designed to look like news reports offer updates on Ford’s appearances, speeches and policy plans, such as they are. A woman named Lyndsey Vanstone, who is Ford’s executive assistant according to her Twitter profile, but is not identified as such, plays the role of TV reporter. She talks to people who say positive things about Ford and complain about Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne. Portions of Ford’s speeches are used, too.

Some of these videos appear to have racked up more than 700,000 views. Others have have 3,000. There are copious comments, mostly of the “I love you, Doug!” variety and a lot of thumbs-up emojis are used. It’d be hard to find a negative comment and that’s because the Ford Nation Facebook platform is really aimed at Ford supporters.

This is an odd, niche strategy. There’s not much selling or explaining going on. Instead of using TV news, the strategy is to use sham TV news on Facebook. You can tell a lot about a political leader by how they attempt to use television to communicate a message. What Mike Harris did was outrageously simple-minded, but it was plain-spoken. And Ford, whatever it is that he’s selling, has neither the courage nor the cunning of Mike Harris.

Interact with The Globe