Skip to main content

It's Moron Time, again, when the political parties roll out television ads designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of voter intelligence.

As expected, because this is how they do politics, the Conservatives unveiled an attack ad against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The Conservatives tried attack ads against Mr. Trudeau soon after he became Leader, but they did not seem to work too well.

Their televised attack ads have resumed. Conservatives have been running negative ads on AM radio stations about Mr. Trudeau for some time. Now, they have unveiled the first of what will undoubtedly be a series of attack ads on television in the weeks to come, or perhaps we should say the months to come.

The NDP and Liberals have started televised advertising, too, with soft-sell pitches about what nice guys their leaders are, and how in touch they are with the "middle class." The ads are inoffensive, squishy and quite likely, therefore, won't be very effective. (The Conservatives have produced one of this kind about Mr. Harper.)

Which is why in due course we can expect the NDP and Liberals to toughen up their attack lines on television against the Conservatives, because negative advertising works.

Recall the Brian Topp memo. Mr. Topp ran the losing NDP campaign in British Columbia (he is now Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley's chief of staff). He wrote afterward that the NDP had erred in not going early and negative against the Liberal incumbent government.

Chattering-class members and those who follow public affairs closely groan at television ads, negative or otherwise, because they cheapen discourse and deaden rational thinking. They aren't designed for these people, but rather for those who do not follow public affairs closely or at all and therefore have a very low information base about public issues.

Advertising's appeal is almost entirely emotional and simplistic. Television is overwhelmingly a medium of emotion, not rational thought, so there is no point trying to place any rational argument in a 30-second spot.

Hit fast and hit hard with a nice soft-sell or a punch to the gut. That's what television advertising is all about and that is what Canadians get from the parties.

Negative ads work because they get the viewer's attention. Built on focus group research, they accentuate a prevailing uneasiness about an individual, in this case Mr. Trudeau's inexperience.

They rally the party faithful who like seeing their side bash the other. They infuriate supporters of the party leader being clobbered, but who cares about them? The point is to appeal to those who have not formed a strong opinion, and to invite viewers to feel fear, loathing or uneasiness about the leader being condemned.

It's ironic, if you choose to see matters this way, that companies cannot trash their adversaries on television. But regulations have been written and conventions have developed that in the realm of political speech, just about anything goes on television and radio (and presumably these days on social media).

Since the Conservatives have more money than the NDP and Liberals, you will see and hear more Conservative ads in the period before the Oct. 19 election is called, after which spending limits apply.

But unless you have been away from Canada, or recovering from an illness in an operation ward, you will have seen repeated Conservative ads paid for by you, the "hard-working taxpayers" of Canada.

Who among you has not seen the Economic Action Plan ads, the ones for the Canadian military or the most flagrantly partisan of all touting the measures in the previous budget? This outrageous use of your money for partisan purposes has been banned in Ontario and Britain, where third-party vetting is required of government advertising to make sure it does not serve partisan purposes.

Were either the NDP or Liberals to form the next government, singly or together, would they dare to remove this advantage from themselves and do an Ontario or British reform? We can only hope so.

While they were at it, they could stop public servants from being paid overtime (or paid at all) to do films of ministers spouting propaganda, as per the screeching partisan Pierre Poilievre's latest ministerial venture into videoed self-congratulation. And they could shut down the film crew that follows the Prime Minister (at your expense) to produce the frequent 24/7 films about him and his government's fine deeds.

They could, in other words, respect taxpayers' dollars.