Monday, March 07, 2011

In defence of the attack ad

My friends the Green Party of Canada released an “attack ad” today that is generating a lot of buzz in political nerdom. It’s an attack ad on attack ads. Have a gander:

It’s a well-executed spot, and it’s an interesting strategy: speak to those turned off by the tone of politics as usual practiced by the usual suspects. I think it’s effective in speaking to those people, but I’m skeptical this is a burning (and vote-moving) issue for many people. People are more concerned about issues that impact them directly, like jobs and the economy, health care and education. There’s a “pox on all their houses” attitude on the level of debate and, while the Greens may hope to tap that (and such voters are certainly in their wheel-house), their positions on those other issues will be what moves people, or not.

It will get the Greens a little attention though as we move into a possible election and remind the chattering classes, at least, that they’re still around. I am amused, though, by the dichotomy of an attack ad that attacks attack ads. It reminded me of the 2006 Conservative ad, "They'll go negative", that warned the Liberals would (in the future) go negative but was, in fact, itself a negative ad. As well, people like to decry attack ads, but the fact remains they can also be pretty effective. So will an attack ad attacking attack ads be an effective attack ad? I don’t know know, but I love the Inception-like feeling of it all.

I would like, though, to raise my voice in lonely defence of the humble attack ad. Not all attack ads are created equal, and not all attack ads are bad. They do play a role in our political discourse, and a rote blanket condemnation of the medium is easy, but short-sighted.

Personal attack ads are definitely out of bounds in my view. We can all think of examples of personal attacks that crossed the line and were rightly condemned. However, issue-based attacks are completely within bounds, and play an important role in any healthy and vibrant democratic debate.

Our political system is built on government and opposition, on groups with opposing views arguing those differences and presenting choices to the people. Issue-based attack ads serve to highlight contrasts and distinctions between the positions and platforms of political parties. They help people understand their choices, and cast a ballot that reflects their views and beliefs.

In a busy world where people don’t pay as much attention to politics and policy as they should, attack ads are (unfortunately) one of the few ways people get their political information. Decry dishonest ads, decry personal attacks, decry short attention spans. But not all attack ads are created equal. And when it comes to highlighting differences on important issues, they’re an important and needed tool.

Maybe we need an attack ad attacking attack ads on attack ads? How would that be for meta mind-blowing…

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Mark Richard Francis said...

I agree, Jeff.

I think May was clever in how she played this one up. "Sorry about the attack ad." Then we get this. LOL...

Steve V said...

"but I’m skeptical this is a burning (and vote-moving) issue for many people."

If any party is poised to gain from the protest voter, that is tired of the status quo from all the parties, it's the Green Party. I think this ad is targeting those most likely to look the Green Party's way, so the usual caveats about the economy, health care, don't enter into this particular thrust. The Greens aren't winning votes based on their policy to create jobs, at least not at this stage, so this is a sound angle IMHO.

Jason Cherniak said...

It's a good way to firm up the base of anti-establishment Greens who might be tempted to vote Liberal to stop the Conservatives. It reinforces the misleading notion that a vote for the Greens is a vote for a change, when it is really just a vote for an almost certainly losing candidate.

Alison said...

While this is a clever move by the Greens, I think the larger problem is political ads outside the writ. I am an old broad and don't recall seeing ads used in this way until the ReformaTories entered the picture. I agree with Jeff that personal attack ads should be verboten, with the exception for pointing out actual corruption or criminal wrongdoing.

Paying Attention Canadian said...

Wow. Look how sick our system is. It's all about the win, huh? Easier to tear down than build up? Easier to accept that Canadians don't give a crap. Easier to throw eggs at the 'other' than to bake a truly great cake?

Everyone I know mutes the attack ads. Many report their blood boiling. Many are craving a party and a leader with one or 2 great ideas that we, as Canadians,can come together around.

I guess no one is listening. What a shame. What a bloody waste.

Jeff said...

I guess no one is listening.

I know how you feel. It's readily apparent you didn't bother to actually read the post you're commenting on.