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Party leaders need to stand by their ads

Manitoba MP pushes for accountability

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Justin Trudeau greets shoppers in Vancouver Sunday. He was the target of negative ads as soon as he became Liberal leader.

DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Justin Trudeau greets shoppers in Vancouver Sunday. He was the target of negative ads as soon as he became Liberal leader.

OTTAWA -- Adrian Dix. Michael Ignatieff. Hugh McFadyen.

Three political leaders from three different parties with at least one thing in common.

Their political careers were pushed off the rails, at least in part by negative advertising.

This isn't to say the only reason these three leaders lost was because of attack ads. There were other reasons -- poor policy platforms, lack of focus, lack of charisma and a general feeling among electors in Canada that it was not time for change.

But at the same time, none of them fought back against the accusations, be it that they were too risky, too arrogant or too left-wing to handle an economy.

And throughout the campaigns, their party's sunk lower and lower. Dix was supposed to win by a mile. He lost by one instead.

Ignatieff was supposed to eat into Conservative support. He led the Liberals to their worst electoral showing ever.

McFadyen was expected to at least hold the NDP to a minority government. He didn't even add a single additional seat to his caucus and the NDP majority actually got bigger.

We can beat our head against the wall and scream and shout all we want -- attack ads are clearly not going away.

But Manitoba Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux thinks he has a small solution.

Today or tomorrow, Lamoureux will introduce a private member's bill to amend the Canada Elections Act to require political advertising, inside and outside of a writ period, to carry a message with the voice of the party leader, identifying himself and approving the ad.

"At the end of the day, what I'd like to be able to see is a clear indication of leaders that take responsibility for their advertisements," he said.

Would Prime Minister Stephen Harper be as likely to batter his opponents as hard if he has to come on the screen or radio at the end of the ad and admit he is behind it?

Most Americans could tell you the answer.

Lamoureux's plan is based largely on the "Stand by your Ad" law in the United States. Most who have suffered through American television during a presidential campaign in the last decade know the drill.

"My name is Barack Obama and I approved this message."

The law was passed by Congress in 2002. It was upheld by the United States Supreme Court a year later and was first put to the test in the 2004 election. It was based on a similar law in North Carolina, and was proposed by Rep. David Price, who said American people were "sick of the relentlessly negative tone of campaigns."

Proponents believed if a candidate had to put his face and name on an ad that slagged his opponent, they might tone down the attack or rethink it altogether.

But did it work?

Nope.

The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project found between 2000 and 2004, the amount of entirely negative advertising in federal election campaigns actually increased -- to 35 per cent from 28 per cent. At the same time, the amount of entirely positive ads dropped to 39 per cent from 45 per cent. The rest were a combination with attacks on an opponent and promotion of the advertising candidate in the same ad.

And the numbers did not get better.

In 2004, 55.8 per cent of ads by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry were considered positive and just 2.3 per cent were considered entirely negative. Last fall, Obama's campaign team aired just 14.4 per cent positive ads and a whopping 58.5 per cent of entirely negative ads.

In 2004, George W. Bush's campaign had 27.4 per cent positive ads and 55.6 per cent entirely negative. Eight years later, Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign had 20.4 per cent positive ads and 49.2 per cent entirely negative ads.

Unless most Canadian politicians have a stronger conscience than their American counterparts, it seems unlikely Lamoureux's idea will have any impact on the tone of political advertising.

And while Canadians repeatedly tell pollsters they don't like negative advertising and are turned off by it, one need only ask people like Dix, McFadyen and Ignatieff if they think negative ads work.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2013 A10

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