The 2015 federal election will require political parties to work harder than ever to capture the attention of the electorate. This story is part of Adam Radwanski's new assignment looking at how the party machines across the country are preparing.
At a time when political campaigns are expected to be infatuated with the latest high-tech ways of communicating with the modern electorate, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been leaning most heavily on a decidedly unsexy medium.
Since late last year, the governing party has been running what is almost certainly its longest and possibly largest commercial-radio campaign. Two ads (or slight variations thereof) have been in heavy rotation across the country: an attack on Justin Trudeau that uses audio of the Liberal Leader saying "the budget will balance itself," and a more positive spot in which Mr. Harper makes the case for his own tax cuts.
The ads may not be noticed by urbanites who do not spend much time in cars, or the left-leaning audience that favours the CBC. But they have likely played an under-recognized role in the Conservatives' rebound and the Liberals' modest decline in the polls.
Plenty of other factors may have influenced support levels, including heightened fears about domestic security and economic turbulence, while the ads have been running. But there is some indication that the one about Mr. Trudeau, in particular, has penetrated. Liberal sources acknowledge the "budget will balance itself" comment, which was made in February, 2014, and attracted limited immediate attention, has in recent months been raised as a concern by voters at the doors or in focus groups.
(The Liberals have countered with radio ads of their own, but not on the same scale.)
The spot in which Mr. Harper tells listeners "my wife and I got into politics because we were tired of politicians raising our taxes without delivering real benefits to hard-working families," may have had less impact. But those who have worked on Mr. Harper's campaigns say that, before elections, he sometimes needs to push back against the perception he is motivated by power rather than Canadians' concerns.
The Conservatives were widely expected to deliver such messages and flex their financial advantage by flooding television broadcasts, including this spring's hockey playoffs. But while viewers have been bombarded with government advertising, the party itself has yet to go heavy on TV.
How much it has spent on radio will not be known until financial returns for 2014 and 2015 are released. But there is little doubt it is in the millions of dollars, and it seems likely to surpass their previous high of $2.4-million in 2008. (Spending during the writ period is not included in such calculations.)
The radio campaign partly reflects the demographics the Conservatives are courting. The ads seem to be in heaviest rotation on stations, such as those with talk-radio and rock formats, whose audiences are heavily male and not particularly young. And as one veteran of Conservative campaigns pointed out, suburbanites – including those in the battleground Greater Toronto Area – are likely to spend time listening to commercial radio on long commutes in their cars.
Not that the Tories are just narrow-targeting. Their ads are reported to have popped up on various sorts of stations across the country – including in places such as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where their prospects are considered limited.
That sort of reach is attributable to one of the biggest draws for political advertisers: Relative to TV ads, which may be rapidly losing value because viewers watching on delay can fast-forward them, radio is so cheap that a party with deep pockets can buy almost as much as it wants.
The Conservatives are that party. And as they try to condition their target voters for the campaign beginning in earnest, going old-school seems be working for them.