Received wisdom holds that negative advertising is a black mark on politics, and that television viewers rightly recoil in horror from it. But two spots released last week, one in Quebec and one nationally, are a reminder that not all attack ads are created equal - and that some of them, at least, serve a public good by helping voters weigh their choices.
The national one, put out by the Conservatives and targeting NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, is standard issue - a narrator darkly warns of "risky theories" and "dangerous economic experiments," over slightly sinister-looking footage of the NDP Leader speaking. Although it takes some liberties by accusing Mr. Mulcair of wanting a carbon tax, the criticisms are otherwise mostly fair; it's certainly worthwhile to highlight Mr. Mulcair's dubious claims about Alberta's oil sands causing Canada to be afflicted by "Dutch disease." Unfortunately, the ad is so stylistically similar to past Conservative ones attacking other opposition leaders that many Canadians will have difficulty taking it seriously.
More arresting and provocative is the ad by the Liberal Party of Quebec. There is no voiceover; no scary music; no scripting at all. Instead, there is a brief slow-motion clip of Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois participating in a student protest outside the provincial Liberals' headquarters, looking slightly confused as she bangs two pot lids against each other. Rather than spoon-feeding viewers an overly simplistic message, it just highlights behaviour that the Liberals consider objectionable.
It remains to be seen how the spot will play with Quebeckers, and a copyright dispute over the footage may limit how much they see it. But unlike many ads, it seeks to contribute in a constructive way to the political discourse, by succinctly highlighting a legitimate contrast between Ms. Marois and the more businesslike Mr. Charest. The unspoken question: Do you really want this person to be your premier?
Other parties, including the federal Conservatives, would do well to borrow a page from Mr. Charest's party - not by copying this particular ad's format, but by embracing the idea that voters can think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. If more political advertising started from that premise, an inevitable component of political messaging might yet be seen as something other than a scourge.