"I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm," Republican senatorial candidate Joni Ernst said at the start of her first ad during last year's U.S. midterm elections. "So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork." Featuring lots of swine footage and a closing promise to "make 'em squeal," the spot was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube in its first three days, and played a big part in taking Ms. Ernst from obscurity to victory.
The recent Israeli election saw Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, not widely known for his sense of humour, successfully try his hand at comic acting. In a 75-second online spot, he arrives at the door of a young couple dressed up for a night on the town. "You ordered a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter!" he tells them, before explaining why he's better suited than his opposition rivals to look after their children.
It is difficult to imagine Stephen Harper putting himself out there the way these politicians did, and Justin Trudeau would probably worry about reinforcing perceptions that he's insufficiently serious. In fact, the majority of Canadian political ads appearing online are blindingly obvious, predictable and on-message to a fault – the kind of stuff you skip over at the first opportunity.
While politicians in other countries are experimenting with savvy and often offbeat digital advertising adjusted for short attention spans, ours have, to this point, mostly recycled TV ads – or variations thereof – online. While some world leaders are putting themselves in unscripted situations to directly engage with electorates, or are getting laughs with self-deprecation, our Prime Minister has put out the dreary 24/Seven Web "reality" series, which contains weekly highlight reels of announcements and photo ops, red-hot "exclusives" such as Mr. Harper giving a group of Girl Guides a commemorative flag, and very safe Q&As. While incumbents and candidates elsewhere are using social media to offer glimpses of their real lives and personalities, most of ours come off like talking-point automatons.
"Canadian politics isn't really benefiting voters right now," laments Ian Capstick, a former New Democratic Party staffer who now heads the digital-communications firm MediaStyle, "because it's so boring."
It's not that our parties aren't trying to capture an online audience. All of them are currently making a dive into data and analytics to maximize their digital impact, and some of those investments may pay off in the coming election. But while other countries have not been immune, Canada is struggling more than most with a cautious political culture incompatible with the emerging world of digital communication.
As a Conservative who has played senior roles on recent campaigns summarizes it: "There's a tension between the need to be more provocative on a digital platform versus being risk-averse and not at all inclined to divert from very carefully honed messages."
Risk aversion and message discipline have mostly triumphed so far, for reasons that range from the structure of our party system to a relative lack of financial resources. Then there's the argument that the online world is full of shiny objects that generally appeal to a younger demographic; older Canadians are the ones who reliably cast ballots, and they're mostly reached through traditional means.
There are plenty of statistics that would challenge that assumption, showing that pretty much everyone is spending more and more time online. But the failure to adapt to new ways of communicating is not just a potential liability heading into this year's federal election; it's a long-term threat to the parties' relevance, as they risk being tuned out by larger and larger swaths of the population.
Until not that long ago, through the limited number of traditional media and communication options at their disposal – network TV, newspapers, commercial radio, home phones – potential voters were a captive audience. TV spots, which remain by far the single biggest line item in campaign budgets, became squarely focused on pounding simple messages into viewers' brains, rather than charming or intriguing them.
But if captive audiences aren't yet a thing of the past, they soon will be. In the last two years, for the first time ever, Canada's total number of cable subscribers declined; increasingly endless digital options allow us to curate our media to consume only what interests or intrigues us and to shut down anything that doesn't.
The upshot: It's time for Canadian parties to get out of their comfort zone – a message delivered repeatedly by digital-campaigning experts this month at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.
"Politics now is not the same as it was five years ago," Vincent Harris announced to an audience heavily populated by Conservatives, before making a case for "persuasion by entertainment."
The 26-year-old chief digital strategist for prospective U.S. presidential candidate Rand Paul suggested that campaigning politicians need to be nimble, topical and irreverent with advertising online and through social media, and use everything from humour to striking visuals to interactive games and contests in their efforts to capture the attention of would-be supporters.
The messages from a parade of other experts in digital campaigning, including executives at Facebook and Google and the political-technology company NationBuilder, were similar, if more subtle. The word "engagement" came up a lot, as did "authenticity" and "experimentation," all of which can be more daunting for politicians than for others trying to sell something online.
The challenge posed by these new realities is hardly limited to political parties; they could take a page from the corporate world's attempts at adapting. Virtually every one of Canada's most-viewed YouTube ads last year involved narrative rawness or ambiguity or quirk – from TD Bank's footage of customers being surprised when ATMs spat out cash gifts, to the Like A Girl campaign by feminine-hygiene brand Always, which starkly highlighted gender stereotypes, and then challenged them.
Some of those ads ran several minutes, suggesting that, once online viewers are hooked, at least some of them can be kept for a good while. But Google Canada's Colin McKay flagged a different tactic while speaking at the Manning conference – showing a popular Geico insurance ad that blurts out all the relevant information in the five seconds before viewers are given the option to click away and then rewards those who stick around with some humour.
His point: Businesses are trying novel approaches to get their message across, and political campaigns should, too.
It's harder, though, for such campaigns to take the risks inherent in experimentation, in part because the stakes, for them, are higher. Corporations can play the long game, knowing it's unlikely that an ad push will budge their market share more than slightly. Politicians and their advisers, by contrast, are constantly afraid that a single mistake could torpedo their careers.
"Politics is not a place where failure is embraced," acknow-ledged Katie Harbath, who heads global political outreach for Facebook, in an interview following her Manning presentation.
NationBuilder vice-president Michael Moschella suggested that, when political campaigns do fall short, the people running them – who may want to keep working in politics – would prefer to make sure they're not caused embarrassment.
But south of the border, some are willing to buck that mentality. The most extreme example is Fred Davis, who specializes in a peculiar genre of attack ads for Republicans. His creations in recent years have caused much snickering. One ad used "demon sheep" to symbolize the willingness of his candidate's rival to follow the crowd and raise taxes; another plastered the helmet hair of disgraced ex-governor Rod Blagojevich atop other Illinoisans and their state legislature. But they have also achieved the elusive (if tirelessly invoked) goal of going viral, and in some cases been credited with helping to win primary battles.
The recent U.S. midterms saw candidates such as Ms. Ernst experimenting with pitches that caught viewers off-guard and held their attention in ways that might provide a somewhat more replicable model for Canadian politicians.
Not that it's all about ads. It has been seven years since Barack Obama's campaign demonstrated the extent to which interest can be built organically through social media – using existing platforms (notably, in his case, Facebook) and specially created ones to engender a sense of community among supporters that, in turn, proved essential in boosting both volunteerism and voter turnout.
Since then, a social-media presence has become expected of pretty much anyone running for anything. As Mr. Moschella puts it, "What smart digital lets you do is talk to people in a really individual way, and talk to lots of them." A study by the Pew Research Center reported that 16 per cent of all registered voters in the U.S. followed candidates in the 2014 midterm elections on social media, up from 6 per cent four years earlier.
No such data is available for Canada, but it seems unlikely there has been that kind of uptake. That has nothing to do with social media use in general; Canada has some of the world's highest rates. (Roughly 20 million Canadians are on Facebook, with a majority of them using it daily.) It has more to do with how uninteresting the political corners of that world are.
Talk to those who have worked in digital campaigning about how to use social media effectively, and there will be three recurring themes: Candidates should give windows into their personalities and, ideally, even their daily lives; they should directly engage with their supporters; and they should empower those supporters to serve as their online ambassadors.
A few of our federal politicians have embraced at least some of those notions. If you follow cabinet minister Tony Clement on Twitter or Instagram, you may be weary of his aspirational music career and his cottage, but you have a good idea who he is. Asked for examples of MPs who have used their platform well, Facebook representatives at the Manning presentation mentioned Nova Scotia New Democrat Megan Leslie and Conservatives James Rajotte of Alberta and Dean Allison of Ontario. (All of them recently experimented with Q&A sessions through Facebook pages.)
The vast majority of incumbent or aspiring MPs, though, use social media mostly for glorified versions of press releases, serving up talking points or blandly gushing about whatever community event they just attended. The more senior the politicians, the more obvious it often is that they are scarcely even aware the feed exists. And while supporters are encouraged to retweet or "like" politicians' posts, they are rarely encouraged to put into their own words the reasons for doing so – which, when done properly, can be effective in converting others within their social networks to the cause.
It is not hard to understand the parties' reticence on all these fronts, since, taken in isolation, the risks often outweigh the rewards.
And in Canada, there are other reasons that those disincentives tend to win out.
One of those is money. With little campaign-finance regulation, billions of dollars were spent on the last U.S. presidential campaign, and a single congressional race can see upward of $3-million spent. Parties and candidates can afford to pay sizable digital teams, and can throw money at various experiments. This week, Politico reported that Hillary Clinton could ultimately have as many as 1,000 people working on her digital team.
Canadian parties will be capped at not much more than $20-million apiece at the national level in this year's election, and strict donation rules mean they can afford to spend only a relative pittance before the campaign officially starts. Facebook's Ms. Harbath, NationBuilder's Mr. Moschella and others expressed optimism that digital spending will occupy a bigger portion of parties' budgets in 2015 than in the last campaign. But for that to happen, they will have to spend less on something else – and as long as they remain wedded to big ad spends on TV, there just isn't that much leeway.
At least as big a barrier for Canadian parties involves how they are structured. Whereas elected representatives south of the border enjoy relative autonomy, MPs (and aspiring MPs) can scarcely breathe without approval from their leaders. That makes it harder to cultivate their own voices online, try new things, and learn from each other.
That's partly just the nature of the parliamentary system. But even when compared to parties in Britain or Australia, which tolerate a variety of voices within them, ours are uniquely wedded to discipline, even at the expense of being interesting.
At the moment, some parties have more incentive than others to avoid being boring. Mr. Trudeau is trying both to offer generational change and to rapidly rebuild his party's organization after a long period of decay, which helps to explain why the Liberals have been slightly more willing than their rivals to latch on to memes. Recently, for instance, Mr. Trudeau joined the viral celebrations of Odin Camus, an Ontario teen with Asperger's syndrome whose schoolmates failed to RSVP to an invitation to his birthday party. The Liberals have also tried to draw visitors to their website with contests.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair needs to raise his profile across the country, and fight the perception he's "angry" and inaccessible, so his team may be inclined to seize opportunities that show him being lighthearted as the campaigning heats up. And both the Liberals and NDP have already borrowed from Mr. Obama's playbook by having campaign officials record videos in which they talk to online supporters about strategy.
After nearly a decade in power, meanwhile, Mr. Harper is such a known commodity that drawing attention to himself isn't his priority. At the same time, because the Conservatives tend to draw their support from an older demographic, they have less motivation to craft messages that are digitally compelling.
But that calculus can last only so long, for any party. It's not as though, when they get older, Canadians who are now in their 20s will suddenly start consuming media the way their parents did.
"Digital is more work, no doubt," Mr. Harris, the American digital strategist, said after his presentation in Ottawa. "It's easier to close your eyes and pretend it doesn't exist. But it does."
Adam Radwanski is a political writer for The Globe and Mail. He is covering the run-up to the 2015 federal election and how parties' machines are preparing across the country.