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The devil is in the details - and the context

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a Conservative Party fundraiser in Montreal on May 20, 2009.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

As I'm following the debate about negative advertising following the latest round of Conservative attacks, I keep thinking there's a missing nuance in some of the discussion. Lots of folks are weighing in with the argument that "negative advertising works." Others are saying voters detest it and it is could backfire. Everybody's right, in principle, and for the moment at least.

As someone who in earlier lives has advised in favour, helped craft, advised against and helped craft rebuttals to negative advertising, I have come to feel that much of the negative advertising we see in campaigns really is harmful for our democracy, it corrodes the reputation of our political institutions. It would be better, if implausible, for parties to agree to mutually disarm themselves of this weaponry, instead of engaging in the mutual assured damage that comes with attack and counter attack.

That having been said, negative advertising sometimes achieves its purpose, sometimes achieves little or nothing, and occasionally creates an unintended and powerful blowback. The context, the content, the style and the authorship all have a bearing on which of these three outcomes is more likely.

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The most explosive type of negative advertising is that which focuses on an individual political leader, drawing a picture of their character, their talents, or their values that is unflattering, sometimes in the extreme. Strong creative put to this purpose can sear a reputation and seal a fate. However, because this type of attack ad is really about asking us to share in a strident personal criticism of someone else, if we don't come away from the ad feeling really persuaded of the merits of the argument, we can turn on its authors.

Safer, but often less engaging, are attack ads that focus on a policy idea or agenda. Running ads that simplify a critique of high deficits, unpopular taxes, free trade or controversial constitutional arrangements rarely make voters feel much discomfort with the advertising, and carry almost no risk of blowback.

Negative framing, especially if used to argue against a somewhat radical sounding new policy often works, because more often than not, people find it easier to avoid change than to embrace it. This type of advertising, even though it won't always work, usually carries no risk for its author.

But its also true that when there is a general mood for change in direction, voters simply respond well to a provocative and repetitive reminder of the reasons the status quo is disappointing. Again, this kind of advertising seldom makes people feel a line has been crossed, and there is little risk of blowback, because the ad is giving voice to a common sentiment.

Context matters a lot too. The big challenge for the Conservatives with their new campaign will be to avoid leaving the impression that they have taken their eye off the ball. There is no election campaign, they said they didn't want one, they said they would try to collaborate with other parties, given the enormity of the economic issues. Voters deeply concerned about the economy may or may not dislike the advertising, but many will be open to the argument that the Conservatives are preoccupied with their own political interests, rather than those of the country as a whole.

In the end, a negative attack focused on an individual must pass three tests. Is it plausibly true? Is it fair comment? Is it relevant to what I care about as a voter? Given that Michael Ignatieff is not well known for many people yet, the test of plausibility may be an easier bar to get over. But suggesting he is unpatriotic and self centred as these ads connote is asking people to buy in to a pretty harsh judgement, for someone they know relatively little about. Finally, whether voters will feel that his time outside the country is relevant to the political choice at hand, or the direction he would set for the country, or the interests of the average voter, those are open questions. For some voters, the ads may do little more than arouse interest in who he is and what he is all about. How he conducts himself in the next few months, will be a matter of heightened public scrutiny, an opportunity to define himself and his opponent at the same time.

Reach and frequency of advertising can accomplish a lot in the world of advertising effectiveness, and it may well be the case that Mr. Ignatieff's reputation suffers somewhat through the coming weeks. But in authorizing these ads, at this time, the risk to Prime Minister Stephen Harper may over the long run prove greater still.

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