Rather than writing based on a first gut reaction, I thought I’d let the weekend go by before I offered my uninformed, non-expert thoughts on the Liberal ads launched last week.
I should mention that, after the Conservative ads launched, I wrote that I felt the important thing for Liberals to do was to stay focused on the ground, getting Michael Ignatieff in front of Canadians to prove that he’s not the caricature of Conservative folklore. I also wrote I didn’t see a compelling need to rush out our own ads; certainly not ones designed to counter Conservative messaging rather than reinforce our own.
I still believe that continuing to tour and meet Canadians is the most important and effective thing we can be doing. That said, there’s no reason we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
I think the fact we’re running ads may well be more important that the content of the messaging contained within. For one thing, it soothes panicky Liberal nerves after the Conservatives launched their barrage. And with this party that’s never a bad investment, particularly ahead of this week’s winter caucus meetings. It’s also a signal to the Conservatives. Their ads were evaluated as sending a message to the Liberals of “you want an election, this is what you’ll get so think twice.” With their ads, the Liberals reply “we can bring it too, so if you wanna dance we’ll dance.”
I’m not sure how much resonance the ads will have with the public. They do send the message that the Liberals are in the game, and with only the Liberals and Conservatives running ads, that could reinforce the two-choice narrative the Liberals want to put forward.
Of course, blink and you might not know these are actually Liberal ads. You’d have to read the fine-print at the start. While these ads could be successful at hurting the Conservative vote, what’s missing is what has been our challenge for five years: converting the disaffected to the Liberal column.
That’s not really a criticism. You can’t do everything in a 16-second ad. As long as we’re competitive going into a campaign, I’m happy, and these ads can help there. It’s in a campaign where we’ll need to convert on that support that might get shaken loose. And that is made possible by the ground work and touring that’s going on now, which is why I keep coming back to the importance of working hard on the ground.
As for the ads themselves, I like the choice to focus on fighter jets and corporate tax cuts. It reinforces the narrative the Liberals have been pushing: jets and big business tax cuts vs. family care and schools. I might have liked to have seen that second-half though. Rather than just hit the Cons, contrast it with our ideas for family home care, as an example. The contrast would help on the conversion challenge.
My favourite ad is the corporate tax cut one. Focused and to the point, speaking to the challenges of ordinary Canadians in the current economic environment and trying to put a gap between their priorities and the government’s. I think the jets issue can be effective too – the ferocity of the CPC propaganda campaign on this issue makes me suspect they have polling that shows Canadians aren’t onside with them on this one.
Now, I recognize that the ads sow confusion about the Liberal position, which isn’t actually to cancel the purchase (note, no deal has been signed yet anyways and won’t be until 2014) but to put the jet purchase to an open, competitive tender to get the best deal.
While I’d like for us to all have a full and open debate that puts all the factors on the table, I can live with it. For one thing, it’s a 16-second ad. For another, we’re fighting the spin and distortion of the Conservative side, backed by the defence industry. Rather than bring a copy of Robert’s Rules to a gun fight, putting forward a clear if slightly misleading message is an unfortunate necessity.
There is lots of talk around negative ads. The Liberals are trying to make much of the fact they're attacking Harper on the issues, while the Conservatives are attacking Ignatieff personally. Some media are predicting a backlash for the Conservative negativity, others say the distinction the Liberals are drawing is minute and meaningless.
The media always decry negative advertising. Just like they paint as weak someone who doesn't go negative. I don't lose sleep over their punditizing. Maybe, at some point, people will lose patience and punish the personal negativity. I'm not holding my breath though. Certainly, they never will if they lack a compelling alternative to turn to, which is why that remains our central challenge. And I really don't think most people watching at home will draw the distinction between personal negative and issue negative. I do, though, and I'm glad we're sticking to the issues.
Anyway, overall, I still believe the ground work is far more important than ads I don’t expect many people will see anyway, and that’s where we need to keep focused. But these ads do show we can respond rapidly too and we’re not afraid to spend some money and go on offence. With a campaign possibly coming up, in my completely non-expert view both are good signs.
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