One of the longest federal election campaigns in Canada's history is now under way. That means Canadians can look forward to being inundated with political advertising: on television, in their Facebook feeds, on YouTube, on the radio and wherever they read the news.
But from an advertising perspective, will any of it be any good?
The Globe and Mail has gathered a panel of experts from the ad and PR world. John Crean, national managing partner at National Public Relations, whose expertise includes strategic communications and issues management; Helen Pak, president and chief creative officer at ad firm Havas Worldwide Canada, and recently, creative strategist at Facebook Canada; and Angus Tucker, executive creative director and partner at Toronto advertising agency John St., will join us during the campaign to analyze that very question.
Our panel begins with the ads that have already been in the market before the writ dropped, from the three parties with standing in the House of Commons.
The ads have not been saying very much, and that's likely by design.
"They're setting the stage for the more specific, message-driven ads to come," Mr. Crean said. "They need to be prepared to deal with the shifting attention, the shifting issues, the external events that will drive the campaign narrative."
The extreme length of the campaign could also mean that advertising will be quieter in August than people are used to during an election campaign, since many people are on vacation. What is certain is that the Liberals and the NDP will have to be strategic not just about their messages, but about how they spend their money buying advertising time – to make the biggest impact against a rival with deep pockets.
Last year, as parties were already preparing for an election, the Conservatives spent $2.5-million on advertising, with roughly 86 per cent going to TV and radio, the Liberals spent $1.8-million, roughly 77 per cent going to broadcast ads and the NDP took a different approach entirely, spending no money on radio and television, and $196,352 on other forms of advertising, according to each party's financial statements.
In the 2011 election, the Liberal Party of Canada spent the most on advertising: $11.9-million of the $19.5-million they spent in the election went to ads, 70 per cent of which was spent on radio and television commercials. The New Democratic Party spent $11-million, with 87 per cent dedicated to radio and television, and The Conservative Party of Canada spent $10.6-million, more than 98 per cent of which went to radio and TV.
Social media such as Facebook and YouTube are already playing a bigger role this time around. Not only are these the most effective media to reach younger voters – a particular point of focus for the Liberals and the NDP – but they provide a more cost-effective platform for longer videos featuring the leaders, and more detailed policy announcements.
These three ads serve to introduce each party's leader to Canadians. Here's what the experts make of those first impressions:
Mr. Tucker: This ad is awful. … The shots of 'middle class' life look like an assembly of stock footage. The music is the same kind of track we've been hearing on positive election ads forever. … The NDP actually have a story to tell here, and it's about momentum. Quebec went Orange, and now, unthinkably, so has Alberta. Everyone loves a winner, and the NDP is on a roll. My advice would be to tell that story.
Ms. Pak: [It's] a visual mess, a grab bag of techniques and shooting styles: sun time-lapse stock shots, an aerial shot of a baker … actors to look like real people, and perhaps the largest fake steam on a coffee cup that I've ever seen before. … Let's face it, party ads have never really raised the bar of creativity, they live in a certain world – a world of cliché. … In an age of transparency, authenticity and emotional connection, you would expect these political ads would get better, but I think they are getting worse.
Mr. Crean: Both the NDP and the Liberals are trying to capitalize on the clear mood for change. It's going to be harder to own that 'We're the party of change.' They're going to have to differentiate why Mulcair and not Trudeau, or vice versa, is the best alternative. Notwithstanding the NDP's recent surge, Mulcair is still less well-known to Canadians. He's still introducing himself in many ways, and defining who he is. … He's talking about being raised with middle-class values and how he will make decisions. This is an introduction.
Ms. Pak: The Liberals' spot at least feels more real and authentic, from the interactions with the Rose family, who I know aren't actors, to the shooting style that feels more observational.
Mr. Crean: The family, more than Trudeau, is the star of the ad. It shows Trudeau as a listener, and someone who is engaged for middle-class families – they're looking at that target market. Most Canadians call themselves middle class, so you're talking to all of them. … He's sitting with the family, holding the baby's hand throughout. The ad is trying to position him as just like us, someone who understands our issues, and wants to sit down and talk to us about the issues – not talking to the corporate elite or lobbyists, but Canadians – and making decisions based on that input. … There's an underlying counterpoint to all these ads, that he's engaged where Harper is detached. That's what they're trying to show now in that opening gambit, that he's an engaged leader who understands, and is more like you and me than Stephen Harper.
Mr. Tucker: [It's] earnest, cautious and weirdly blah. There's a bit of meat on this bone – a $2,500 child tax cut for the middle class – but it's delivered so dispassionately, that it just doesn't register. This is one of those ads that no one objected to in research, and no one will remember in the real world.
Mr. Crean: It is really all about him, alone in his office, working hard, reflecting on the challenges he's faced. Clearly when we talk about leadership, there are different ways of thinking about it. More often today, we think of it as someone who works with others, and collaborates. Then there's a classic idea of what leadership is, which is the solitary man making tough decisions. This is focusing on Stephen Harper himself. … There's a choice there, that Stephen Harper is the star of that ad. Whereas the star of the other ads is, it's all about us, Canadians.
Mr. Tucker: From the standpoint of creative execution, they're all exceptionally boring, The Conservative work, at least, had a bit of finesse to it. It had a bit of a sense of style and taste. … I'd give this approach another week before they go back to their tried-and-true 'it's mean but it works' style – but this time with Mulcair and the NDP in the crosshairs.
Ms. Pak: This spot feels incredibly staged and awkward to watch. It is not real, even though the voice-over talks about being real, and working hard and telling the truth. … We live in a transparent, very real world; in a world that is one take, as it happens, in the now. Instinctively, we are highly aware when things aren't that way and it feels awkward.