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Conservative attack at on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff
Conservative attack at on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff

Analysis

Negative sum game Add to ...

Perhaps everything they say about the effectiveness of political attack ads is true - when run during an election campaign, that is. But how about those Michael Ignatieff "Just Visiting" attack spots run by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, which were designed to trip up the new Liberal Leader just as he tried to steady his political feet?

Was it skillful maneuvering? Clever manipulation of a possibly fatal flaw? Serious miscalculation? Negative sum game?

It turns out to be the latter, and the loser is the Canadian public. Despite what Conservative focus groups might have said when the decision to run the ads was originally made, the ads are toxic.

As a market research company that evaluates advertising, among other things, we decided, on a whim, to see what reaction to the ads in English Canada was all about. We had heard one or two grumblings here and there. But did it amount to anything?

In late June, we showed one of the ads in an online survey to 600 people in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia.



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The ads had certainly been visible. Eight in 10 in our survey said they had seen the one we showed, and six in 10 said they had seen it "a lot."

A total of 23 per cent said they "liked it," 34 per cent were neutral, and 43 per cent said they "disliked it." These results weren't great, as ads go, but they were still tolerable. (A typical ad will produce about as many negative reactions as positive ones.)

Our main interest, though, was to understand what Canadians felt about the whole idea behind the ads. Were they "fair game"?

Forty-four per cent thought the ad we showed was fair game and 56 per cent thought it wasn't. We asked Canadians if it made them distrust Canadian politicians more, and 73 per cent agreed.

We followed that up with another question: Did Canadians agree that politicians should find ways to work together and not attack one another? Here, 85 per cent agreed.

Finally, we asked if they thought that this kind of advertising doesn't really do any harm. A total of 79 per cent disagreed with that. It does harm, said eight in 10 Canadians.

These were only the overall results. Maybe it was just Liberals - and New Democrats and Green Party supporters, perhaps who were creating all the fuss.

We tested that by examining our respondents based on how they voted in the last election. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of those who had voted Conservative agreed that this kind of advertising was "fair game" in politics. But then we discovered that 65 per cent of Conservatives also agreed that "they distrusted politicians and that this kind of advertising only makes it worse."

Did Conservatives think they were breathing the same polluted air that Liberals were? It looked that way. A total of 68 per cent disagreed with the idea that advertising like this doesn't do any harm. So it seemed Conservatives were almost as likely to agree that these ads do harm as were voters for other parties.

The evidence of this negative sum-ness kept piling up. We asked all our respondents if the advertising made them less positive about the Liberal Party; a total of 48 per cent said yes. But 59 per cent of Canadians felt the ad made them less positive about the Conservative Party.

But maybe we're getting a little ahead ourselves. Maybe these kinds of ads really do produce results; a little negativity in the air is just the price you pay.

So we asked those who voted Liberal in the last election if the ads made them feel less positive about the Liberal Party. A total of 20 per cent said yes. Conservative vindication at last? Not necessarily, because 38 per cent of Conservatives said the ads gave them a less positive view of the Conservative party.

So where are we at with this kind of advertising? Sure, there were a handful of Liberals wobbling a bit at the knees. (They were mostly younger, by the way.) But that was just a trickle, as far as we could tell. What was more notable was the price that all Canadians seem to be paying in the form of sagging respect for politics, politicians and the whole political process - regardless of party.

Whatever benefits accrue to the party that sponsors these kinds of ads comes at a huge cost. An analogy with those CEOs who insist on meeting their quarterly targets, without reference to the price they might pay in the form of the company's future financial viability, comes to mind.

When it comes to deciding on this type of advertising, shouldn't the cost to Canadians' views of the political process and their civic life be a politician's number one concern?

Alastair Hay is president of Hay Research International, a Canadian market research firm based in Toronto.

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