Skip to main content

Television John Doyle: Farewell Stephen Harper, master of attack ads

So farewell then, Stephen Harper, once Our Glorious Leader and, once upon a time, known to the more cruel among us as the man who appeared to put his hair in the fridge at night.

Farewell then, and let us consider the legacy. Attacks ads, mainly.

Harper was the master of no medium. In the frenzy of the election night results in 2011, on CTV, Lloyd Robertson declared, "Nobody seems to like this guy, but they sure vote for him." Actually, they were voting against others.

Story continues below advertisement

Always awkward on TV and increasingly hostile to all reporters during his years as prime minister, Harper and his team relied upon the most basic of tactics to get the message out. Mostly, the message was attacking and denigrating somebody else.

It is a peculiar legacy, at once fascinating because it worked, and distressing because it introduced a negativity that many Canadians wish was never visited upon our political system. In a way, mind you, it was out of necessity. Harper was a hopeless communicator. Gimmicks or grating antagonism were the preferred and necessary tactics of Harper and his media-handling posse. Harper didn't care much about image or persuasion. Election campaigns demanded some sort of effort, though, and the early campaigns during his tenure displayed a ruthlessness which often left the opposition appalled but bankrupt for response.

Related: Stephen Harper leaves divisive legacy at home as he eyes global business (for subscribers)

In the 2006 election campaign, Harper's image appeared to be set in stone, thanks to the mockery that was rampant on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce. He was stiff, unfriendly, like an automaton. His TV ads were sneered at. They were hokey and simple-minded. But they worked and, in particular, his simple-minded gimmicks aimed at using TV news to spread his message, worked wonderfully well.

In that campaign, at a stop somewhere in Quebec, Harper appeared onstage with a briefcase stuffed with cash. The point was to remind voters about the money made by shadowy businessmen in the Adscam affair. Some pundits and the Liberals may have rolled their eyes at the glaringly obvious, hokey use of the briefcase stuffed with cash as a prop. But the TV cameras loved the image and a lot of eyeballs watching the TV news got the point. There, right there, was an effective attack message.

During the 2008 campaign, the infamous sweater was introduced. Wary of Harper's image as remote and unkind, his team put him in a sweater in a series of TV commercials called "Family is Everything." The sweater and the ads were derided and rightly so. They were a silly attempt to soften an image that could not be changed. What was working, instead, were attack ads.

At that point, Harper's team had been doing negative campaigning for a year. In 2007, they introduced the novel and deadly tactic of running attack ads aimed at the Liberals between elections. Stéphane Dion was barely in the job as Liberal leader when the Conservatives began running ads declaring Dion was "not a leader" and "not worth the risk." It stuck and by the time the 2008 election was underway, Dion was toast.

Story continues below advertisement

Next came the tactic used against Michael Ignatieff. It was attack ads on steroids. The campaign was relentless and ceaseless – Ignatieff was "just visiting" and he moved in "elite circles." As Ignatieff himself later acknowledged, the attack ads made it impossible for him to forge his own story and transcend the negativity. In last year's marathon campaign, the negativity and attack tactic finally stopped working. There was fatigue with Harper himself and with all that hostility. Perhaps the sheer length of the campaign worked against Harper. There was just too much of him. And the attack ads against Justin Trudeau misfired. The message was clear – Trudeau is a lightweight. But, unlike Ignatieff, Trudeau had no trouble presenting an opposing narrative.

Earlier this month, the master's thesis of Dimitri Soudas, a former communications director for Harper, was made available. (It's easily found online.) In it, Soudas makes the case for social media being the future and the most effective way for politicians who want to massage public opinion.

It's an odd document, this thesis. Soudas attacks television as a medium for political discourse. "Television further undermines the depth and quality of political dialogue and the debate by requiring politicians to speak in sound bites, rather than in a substantive manner. As a result, television has encouraged the 'theatrics' seen during coverage of Question Period, which has become the norm within Canadian politics." There is truth in that, but Harper, for whom Soudas worked, used precisely that aspect of television – the simplicity and lack of nuance – more effectively than anyone. He understood it lowered the tone and he wanted the tone lowered. That is his legacy.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter