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Lawrence Martin

Ad wars: Where the real battles rage Add to ...

“In your heart, you know he’s right.” That was Republican Barry Goldwater’s slogan in the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign. Democrats were quick to respond. They came back with “In your gut, you know he’s nuts.”

A little wit can go a long way in politics. Election campaigns are increasingly an ad and slogan war. The party that comes up with the best zingers, stingers, bumper-sticker slogans to bring out the pom-pom shakers will have a decided edge.

In our election, strategists will be looking to the history books for inspiration. Ones that succeed are often ones that rhyme. There was “In Hoover We Trusted; Now We’re Busted” and “We Like Ike.’’ There was “All the Way with LBJ” and “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.”

“Roosevelt for ex-President,” didn’t work. “King or Chaos” did well as did “A Just Society.” More recently the “Just Visiting” tag the Conservatives glued on former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had a telling effect.

Conservatives will try to pillory Justin Trudeau on the not-ready theme in the coming campaign. They’ll go after the Liberal Leader as a green-around-the-ears Little Lord Fauntleroy who’s shallower than a bird bath. For their own promotion, they’ll play the patriot card channelling Ronald Reagan’s flag-waving or William McKinley’s “Patriotism, Protection and Prosperity.”

As for the opposition parties, look for them to hit hard on what they see as the country’s backward march in big policy areas; on criminal justice, on the environment, on economics favouring the affluent, on war over peace and on autocratic governance. A New Democrat told me he wants his party’s attack ad to be: “The Harper Conservatives – Our Bridge to the 17th Century.”

In the propaganda game, the Tories are advantaged. They have more money and a bigger bullhorn because of that fine line between what is legitimate government program promotion and what is a politically partisan ad.

Claiming the Tories have crossed that line with their endless Economic Action Plan promos, the Liberals, in a sly twist, are running their own ad to make the point. The cheeky spot has Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanking Canadians for giving him hundreds of millions in tax money for use as Conservative Party agitprop. It’s an improvement from recent Liberal campaigns in which the party’s advertising has been as anodyne as their leaders who have served as Tory punching bags.

Lester Pearson once said that “politics is the skilled use of blunt objects.” Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair get it. The Liberals are learning.

On the vision front, the Harper team feels it has a winner with the “Strong, Proud, Free” slogan that is currently prominent on your television screen. It brings to mind Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” commercial in his 1984 election campaign. Mr. Reagan’s three words were “Prouder, Stronger, Better.”

Journalists have applied through freedom of information channels to find out how the Tories came up with their catchphrase but the Harper team is keeping it secret, citing cabinet confidentiality. That’s taking secrecy to absurd levels, says the NDP’s Mathieu Ravignat. They fear, he charges, they’ll be seen as using a politically partisan tagline in government-paid advertising.

The Reagan commercial, for my money, was one of the most effective ever and the Tories are wise to channel it even if, in the Canadian context, opponents try to change “morning” to “dusk.”

On the progressive side, one of the great ad spots, though he was fighting a hopeless cause, was George McGovern’s harpooning of Richard Nixon. “This is about the government,” began the solemn-voiced narrator. “This is about credibility…This is about hidden funds…This is about falsification…this is about bugging.” And on it went covering all the dirty deeds before concluding: “This is about the White House. And this is how you stop it – With your vote!”

There have been a lot of good ones. In election campaigns the real wars are the ad wars. Till now at least, the Conservatives have got the message.

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