As we move deeper into a week where the fate of the current government will be decided, I expect that Canadians will be bombarded by unprecedented media buy of government and political advertising. The government has launched a series of new “action plan” ads with the tabling of the budget. These ads will run until an election is called. Party advertisements will be in high gear as well as both government and opposition ‘carpet bomb’ the electorate with their messages before election expenses are in effect once the writ is dropped.
From the tone of the political ads that have been broadcast so far, it is likely that voters will feel like they need a good shower after 5 weeks of campaigning. Negative ads abound. Why? Because they move voters. An election without a major issue will be more about slagging political opponents than policy. By the end of April, the only issue that may really resonate with voters is whether they are fed up with minority parliaments and continual elections.
While the political discourse will likely do nothing to improve voter turnout, negative campaigns have been around as long as democracy. I was reminded of that over the weekend as I read Tim Cook’s new book, The Madman and The Butcher. It’s a story of two of Canada’s WWI leaders – Sam Hughes and Arthur Currie. Cook makes the point that politics of the day used mainstream media to dish out all sorts of vitriol against opponents. Newspapers were almost all partisan in orientation. Hughes’ newspaper, “The Warder”, attacked Liberal supporters relentlessly. He called the Roman Catholic Church “an organization for lying and deception” and called French Canadians “little better than brutes.” I can imagine what the Advertising Standards Council would say about that!
Today of course you don’t need to own a newspaper to publish opinion. Anyone can create a website, blog, or tweet with very little regulation. While standards of what is acceptable have changed, voters have always been critical of negative ads. Hughes was sued for slander, someone tried to burn his printing press, and he was even shot at by an assassin. So before we get too judgmental about the state of campaigning these days, we would do well to reflect on the past. Negative ads have always been with us, it is just the way they are delivered has changed.