Skip to main content

Soon, television will revert to normal content. And for that we can be grateful.

At the end of a 78-day election campaign, what do we remember? The discord of chaotic debates or the strident messages of attack ads? There were a lot of the latter.

According to IPG Mediabrands, between the election call on Aug. 4 and Sept. 27, Canadian TV viewers were targeted with more than 9,800 political party spots from the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP.

That breaks down to Conservatives – 6,032 TV spots (61 per cent), Liberals – 2,534 TV spots (26 per cent) and NDP – 1,249 TV spots (13 per cent). Of the total, 66 per cent of all TV spots were attack ads (that's more than 6,500 ads) and 65 per cent of these attack ads were from the Conservatives targeting Trudeau.

Then came the cruel October, when the weather hardened and winds changed.

We're told not to pay undue attention to national polls. They don't reflect the riding-by-riding reality. But something happened when October arrived.

If Justin Trudeau is to soar to an unexpected, come-from-behind victory of some kind tonight, the narrative took a significant turn on the Thanksgiving weekend. Trudeau was campaigning in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

All the leaders have spent time there. Stephen Harper has made a fetish of visiting the North. He was there in mid-August, on one of those photo-ops that frustrated the media. No questions allowed, cherry-picked audience. He took a brief walk, looking awkward in an ill-fitting padded jacket over his suit jacket and pants. Tom Mulcair was in Iqaluit, too, looking equally awkward, under-dressed in a sports jacket, sweater and dress pants.

Trudeau looked utterly at home there. Look at the images and call up the TV news video. He's in jeans, knee-high boots and a waist-length parka worn open. He's got one of his children tucked into his left arm. There is a message in every campaign photo-op, either overt or subliminal.

In this instance, Trudeau projected youth, strength, vitality and, more important, blithe confidence. That's a core aspect of character that simply cannot be faked. What voters want as they watch an election campaign unroll – what they need in the narrative arc of any story – is something they can connect with and admire. Trudeau delivered that.

Certain stories and places are central to the development of national identity and the North is a defining part of our identity. That's why Harper has a made a fetish of it. Even if we're in urban centres or suburbs, we are in thrall to it. It has helped shape our definition of strength, endurance and integrity.

Back in the sprawling suburbs of Toronto, Harper got into the gimmicks as the polls told him to get precise. Many present might have been befuddled by the gimmick of a supporter putting money on a table as sound effects imitated a cash register and the alleged costs of the Liberal tax plan were crudely illustrated.

Scoff away, but it's the sort of cunning use of television perfected by Mike Harris in Ontario in the mid-nineties. (Harris at the SkyDome, for instance, telling the cameras that the number of welfare recipients could fill the seats over and over again.)

The visceral connection between the policy statement and TV-friendly location and gimmick is exactly what TV news needs. Simple, cartoon-like illustrations of policy or attack on the other party are guaranteed coverage and for viewers who want brevity and precision in the message, it's memorable.

Back in the mid-nineties, I interviewed Tom Long, who ran two Harris campaigns (and is now director of the Manning Centre). He told me: "Skillful use of images for TV news can be as persuasive as TV ads. And most people sum up an election in terms of TV images."

True, no doubt. But, mind you, reverting to Harris tactics in the dying days of a campaign smacks of desperation.

Mulcair went into the dying days of the campaign doing little that was different. A key component that was lacking throughout was a sense of genuine conviction and passion from Mulcair. Like Harper, he used what seemed to be a synthesized voice to speak to the public, in person or on TV. Eventually the viewer intuits that it's not his real voice and is something concocted to seem reasonable and terribly prudent.

There's only so long for that fakery to function as a selling point. People wonder, "Is he afraid to sound passionate and speak with his natural conviction?"

In contrast, Justin Trudeau never sounded synthesized. Even his speeches had the "um" and "ah" of hesitation or tiredness. But when necessary the tired voice soared to deliver the script with confidence and feeling – give the middle class a better tax deal, lift children out of poverty, tax the one per cent, the economy depends on people, not a prime minister.

Every election campaign is about persuasion. Every speech and photo-op is about that. Some efforts at persuasion are well-honed and they work. Other persuasive moments occur without gimmickry or elaborate planning. Sometimes the people involved and the people watching on TV don't even realize what's happening. That happened on the Trudeau campaign.

Now let's see the real impact.