Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attack ads' negative aims producing positive gains

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Who is Justin Trudeau? Very few Canadians who pay even the slightest attention to politics ask this question. Everyone knows Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal party. He has easily passed the first test of a successful politician.

When I was in politics, the comment we dreaded most was "Who is Sid Green?" Name recognition is paramount for anyone seeking political office. It is even possible more Canadians would recognize the Trudeau name than would recognize the name of Tom Mulcair who happens to be the leader of the Opposition.

Second only to name recognition in the eyes of most politicians is photo or physical recognition. Seeing one's picture in newspapers or on television or even on a piece of election literature was a source of genuine satisfaction. Using this standard, Trudeau is passing with flying colours. Some of his recognition would probably result from the fact that Justin Trudeau is the son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau. But Pierre left the scene many years ago, before many voters of today were even born. And Justin Trudeau has not made a particular impression in the House of Commons that would account for his prominence. Why is Justin Trudeau so well-known?

The answer to this riddle may lie in facts revealed by the latest news story about the Conservative advertising campaign. We are told the governing party has spent millions of dollars on negative advertising aimed at discrediting the Liberal leader and intends to spend millions more between now and the next election. Yet public opinion polls show Trudeau has not been harmed by this campaign. Rather, the Liberals have passed the Conservatives as the party favoured by most Canadians. It is difficult not to draw a conclusion there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the negative ads and the rise in Liberal popularity. Despite the view now prevalent among most professionals, negative ads don't work and are quite possibly counterproductive. Where would Trudeau stand if it were not for the millions spent in advertising by the Conservatives? We don't know. We can only guess. And my guess is as good as anyone else's. In the yesteryear of politics when I was actively involved, the rule was we never mentioned our opponent's name and only referred to them by a no-name description. It would have been a capital crime for party staff to produce literature containing a picture of our opposition. Anyone doing so would promptly be fired. My old friend, former city councillor Peter Taraska, would always dismiss an unfavourable news comment with the question "Did they spell my name right?"

Speculation will continue on whether negative advertising is or is not effective. We don't know if Trudeau and his Liberals would be higher in the polls if it were not for the Tory attack ads. We do know the NDP and their leader Tom Mulcair have gone down in the polls without equivalent attack ads.

I don't have to speculate in the case of one negative attack ad. When Kim Campbell took over from Brian Mulroney and was running for prime minister, the Progressive Conservatives published a particularly unflattering picture of Jean Chrétien, who happened to be unfortunately afflicted by a facial distortion the attack ad emphasized. My son, who was a Tory supporter, promptly and in disgust took down his lawn sign. We know the results of that election. The Tories were reduced to three seats in the House of Commons.

The most obvious weakness of spending money on attack ads is the fact millions of dollars are spent without telling us anything about what the Conservatives stand for and what they intend to do positively to benefit the people of this country, Ask any Canadian, and they will have only the vaguest notion of what the Conservatives will do if re-elected. The debate for and against attack ads will continue, and it's almost impossible to know who is right. When I was in politics, I had a simple rule. "When in doubt, do what is right. What is right will turn out to be politically right." When it comes to advertising it is right to follow the advice of an old '50s hit song, "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative."

 

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2014 A9

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