Cover your eyes, people—it’s election season.
That also means it’s election commercial season. It’s going to hurt, and it’ll get a lot worse before everything is over. The bludgeoning has only just begun, and the state of affairs promises to descend into much seedier depths throughout the coming weeks.
A lot will be made of the styles and approaches of the TV spots we’re going to be force-fed on heavy rotation. We’ll talk details, of course. “Attack ads are so unsavoury,” we’ll say. “Your strategy is showing,” we’ll say. “Why not make an ad about your actual platform?” we’ll ask.
These dissections take place ad nauseum every time a major election rolls around, and they are—more or less—kind of exactly the same each time. That’s because the spots are always kind of the same, too. Or at least they’re variations on the same themes.
Lack of originality isn’t the real tragedy, though. The real tragedy is much simpler and frankly, glaringly obvious.
Canadian political ads are just plain bad.
The acting is bad. The production quality is bad. The insights are bad. The emotional appeal is bad. It’s all unequivocally bad, and there’s no excuse for it. These are multi-million-dollar campaigns, and the raw material simply isn’t up to snuff. The spots consistently feel like they lack both budget and effort.
So let’s stop analyzing the details and call this thing what it is: a total advertising wasteland.
I wanted this article to be nice and click-baity. (I really did. It’s my job.) I went through the motions of researching the best Canadian political ads of the modern era so I could turn out a juicy top 10 list complete with YouTube links and glowing, witty commentary.
But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
The political ads of today are bad and the political ads of yesterday are also bad. It made me stop and ask myself: has anybody ever done this well?
Yes. At least once to my knowledge. Have a look:
In short, this spot is majestic. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan and his legacy—that’s a different discussion for a different time and place. His “Morning in America” campaign, and this little 60-second miracle in particular, are everything political campaign advertising can and should be.
For starters, it’s well made. Some true advertising heroes of a bygone era actually took the time to craft this thing with Norman-Rockwell-evoking affection. That alone sets it apart.
But it’s more than tidy execution. “Morning in America” deftly plays up the positive while just as deftly underplaying the negative. It sings the praises of the incumbent’s leadership while also making a subtle dig at the unnamed competition—without slinging mud, I might add. Magic.
The real magic, though, is the insight.
By 1984, America had been through the ringer for almost two decades. The citizenry yearned for glorious postwar days of yore. This spot boldly suggested those halcyon days were right around the corner again—all thanks to the commander-in-chief.
Add deep-rooted insight to a flawless narrative structure and top-drawer craftsmanship, and you’ve got an instant classic on your hands. No insults. No blood on the killing floor. No unsavoury quips about haircuts.
To make it plain, the spirit of the time was perfectly captured and romanticized.
This is the kind of political ad I yearn to see on Canadian airwaves and social media feeds. Something that builds a candidate’s brand through well-formulated content and high-production values. That inspires Canadians to vote for something rather than against something. That taps into the national mindset and elevates the state of politics rather than dragging it into the frosty northern muck.
Look, campaign ads are designed to win elections, not Cannes Lions. But all marketing campaigns are meant to attain a tangible goal first and win awards second. In a sane and reasoned world, the former informs the latter. We only have to look at Obama for America to see that one can beget the other in the political space. Granted, that is an exceptional example. But shouldn’t we set the bar higher than the cynically expected when it comes to the absolute most important marketing campaign in any given four-year cycle? A campaign that ultimately determines a nation’s trajectory and directly affects tens of millions of people?
It’s pretty obvious that we should.
I long for Morning in Canada. Let’s hope one of our candidates has a little majestic sunrise up his or her sleeve before all is said and done.