This column is an opinion by Éric Blais, president of Headspace Marketing in Toronto. He has helped build brands for more than 35 years and is a commentator on political marketing for media such as CBC’s Power & Politics. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The day after a recent game of chicken in the House of Commons that could have brought down the government and sent Canadians to the polls, Elections Canada declared it was ready to run a snap election during a pandemic. However, are Canada’s voters and politicians ready?
Besides being a risky political move, since many Canadians likely wouldn’t be happy about political manoeuvring resulting in an election in the midst of a public-health crisis, there are big questions around how a physically distanced election would affect campaign strategy.
Political parties are in permanent campaign mode these days, and they have already taken steps to adapt to the health requirements of different regions through things such as increased use of phone calls and online meetings. But that’s no substitute for socially-close tactics that are mainstays of political campaigns: rallies, door-to-door canvassing, shaking hands and kissing babies.
If Canada ends up with a federal election battle during the pandemic, the need to reach and engage voters, communicate party platforms and respond to attacks will likely lead to a significant increase in advertising spending. It could also mean the adoption of high-impact campaign strategies that push the limits of what’s acceptable to media providers and the voting public.
For a sign of what Canadians could be in for if there’s an election call in the coming months, look south of the border.
An analysis by the New York Times revealed that more than $1.5 billion US was spent on advertising for the presidential race alone from May 3 to Oct. 15; by contrast, $496 million was spent on ads around the presidential race by that point in the 2016 race. This astronomical increase in ad spending resulted in carpet-bombing of battleground states with, for example, close to 40 different ads for Joe Biden running in a single week in Pennsylvania alone.
Add to this the relentless micro-targeted ads on social media. Voters have never before been exposed to this much advertising from political parties during a campaign.
And it’s mostly nasty.
The same analysis found that roughly 80 per cent of the Donald Trump campaign’s ads have been either negative or what’s called a “contrast ad,” a mix of criticism of the opponent and self-promotion. Of those, 62 per cent were all-out attacks. About 60 per cent of Biden’s campaign ads were negative or contrast, with 7 per cent outright negative.
Political strategists in Canada have generally refrained from adopting the more extreme U.S.-style political ads, but they have sought inspiration and guidance from top Democratic and Republican strategists. Leading up to the 2018 election, for example, the Liberals got advice from Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Axelrod, who told them they needed to persuade voters they still represented change. Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s two presidential victories, spoke at last year’s Manning Networking Conference, where he advised Canada’s most influential conservative thinkers, strategists and politicians to go beyond simplistic, bumper-sticker sloganeering.
The House8:29Interview – David Axelrod
All this suggests that election campaigning in Canada is increasingly being modelled after strategies in other countries. Here’s a sampling of what we might expect should Canadian political strategists adopt advertising and social media tactics used in the U.S. to grab attention during the pandemic.
‘Intentional wrongness persuasion’
That’s what Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and author of the book Win Bigly, calls Donald Trump’s persuasion method. First, make a claim that is directionally accurate but has a big exaggeration or factual error. Second, wait for people to notice the exaggeration or error and spend endless hours talking about how wrong it is.
As Adams puts it, “when you dedicate focus and energy to an idea, you remember it. And the things that have the most mental impact on you will irrationally seem as though they are high in priority, even if they are not.”
Or as Jared Kushner told Bob Woodward for his book Rage, “controversy elevates the message.”
Reductio ad absurdum
It’s Latin for “reduction to absurdity,” an argument whereby one seeks to prove one’s position simply by pointing out the absurdity or foolishness of an opponent’s position.
One of the most striking Biden ads doesn’t offer any constructive information about his platform, it’s a 10-second clip posted on Twitter. It shows Trump speaking at a rally: “If I lose to him [Joe Biden], I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I will never speak to you again. You’ll never see me again.” It ends with, “I’m Joe Biden and I approve this message.” It’s been viewed more than 18 million times.
I’m Joe Biden and I approve this message. <a href=”https://t.co/TuRZXPE5xK”>pic.twitter.com/TuRZXPE5xK</a>
Untruths left unchecked
Many voters get their news from their social media feed, where they’ll find a hodgepodge of lies, distortions and “alternate facts,” to borrow from former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. Fact checkers and those seeking the truth can’t keep up.
Participants in focus groups often say that the ads in particular must be true, because they would not be allowed if they weren’t. That’s generally the case, but there’s one exception: political ads. Advertising Standards Canada vets most advertising, including government advertising, but not political ads during a campaign.
We didn’t say it, they did
Third-party advertisers often say things candidates wouldn’t dare say, and advertising from political action committees in the U.S. has huge influence. Third-party ads have been taken to a new, highly sophisticated level by organizations like the Lincoln Project, a group of Republican operatives who disavowed their own party in order to work against President Donald Trump.
In Canada, we’ve already had a taste of this. True North Strong & Free urged people to vote for the People’s Party of Canada with billboards that read “Say No to Mass Immigration,” while billboards by Alberta Fights Back called for the jailing of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The posters were eventually removed, but the decision to accept or refuse these ads lies with the media providers that must navigate delicate issues around free speech and censorship.
Using content in ads without permission or out of context can spell trouble for commercial advertisers, but those crafting political ads in the U.S. appear less concerned about this. The Trump campaign recently ran an ad featuring Dr. Fauci and took his words out of context, for example.
This has already started happening here. A Facebook post by a Conservative riding association in British Columbia in 2019 took an authentic quote from Canadian comedian Rick Mercer about the importance of voting, but changed the final part of the quote from “Vote” to “Vote Conservative.” And the Liberals had to remove a campaign video from Facebook that featured Governor General Julie Payette.
Film star Samuel L. Jackson appeared in an ad for the Biden campaign slamming voter suppression. Sam Elliot and Brad Pitt lent their voices to ads portraying Biden as a uniter, while Martin Sheen voiced a Lincoln Project election day ad. And Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen lent their songs to ads urging Americans to vote and celebrating Biden’s hometown roots.
Canadian celebrities tend to avoid politics, although Quebec’s artistic community can be vocal in its support. Should political operatives in Canada seek star power to drive home their message, they should tread carefully as politics and celebrity culture usually don’t mix well in this country.
Justin Trudeau predicted that the 2019 federal election would be the country’s nastiest. It wasn’t, at least from an advertising standpoint. As we watch how Americans have taken the political discourse to new lows, we should hope for Canadians’ stereotypical niceness and politeness to kick in so we go high after they’ve gone low.
My golden rule for social media: talk trash to your heart’s content, but do it in private – The Guardian
Alternative social media platforms fuel polarization and conspiracies | Watch News Videos Online – Globalnews.ca
Media outlets shouldn’t have to fight so often for court transparency – The Globe and Mail
Last week, after legal arguments on behalf of The Globe and Mail and other media, the court released RCMP documents that suggested the gunman behind April’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia was planning his rampage more than a year before the deadly attack.
The Globe story noted that: “A heavily redacted RCMP application for a search warrant revealed that Gabriel Wortman used an online PayPal account to purchase equipment for the mock RCMP vehicle he drove in the April 18-19 killings that left 22 people dead in the province. An RCMP officer subsequently killed him at a gas station in Enfield.”
The public rightly has questions about what the RCMP or other official sources knew about his planning and his obsession with police. It seems clear mistakes were made, from who knew what in those months leading up to the attack, to the police actions during the 13 hours when the gunman rampaged through the province.
A number of Canadian media outlets believe strongly that it is time for Canadians to know what actions he took and what the police knew. Included in this continuing challenge are CBC, CTV, Chronicle Herald, Halifax Examiner and Global News. They are sharing legal costs in this effort for more documents because they believe Canadians deserve to know.
Search warrants are supposed to be made public after they have been executed with some exceptions and the media should not have to fight so often for this transparency. In the Nova Scotia case, the police have argued that all the information in every document, including the name of an anthropologist who helped on the case, should remain private.
Canadian courts and police are notoriously opaque, and the costs of legal battles to fight for this transparency can be high. So sharing legal costs not only makes sense, and I suspect it also adds to the weight of the argument in court when the media present a single voice.
This is not the only major legal case where the media are pushing for more information.
Another is the case of Alek Minassian, the van driver on trial for killing 10 people and seriously injuring 16 others when he drove a rented van through groups of pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street in April, 2018.
The crux of the case is whether he is criminally responsible. His defence team is arguing that his autism spectrum disorder made him unable to rationally appreciate that what he was doing was wrong. The defence asked that videos of his conversations with a psychiatrist not be shown openly after the U.S.-based psychiatrist himself threatened to refuse to testify if they were.
The defence applied for the audio and video footage of those interviews to be sealed or shown in camera. A different coalition of news outlets, including The Globe and Mail, fought the application.
Justice Anne Molloy said her deepest concern was Mr. Minassian’s right to a fair trial: “He only has one defence available to him. That has been clear right from the beginning.”
Although she agreed to seal any portions of the interviews that are entered as exhibits, she would not agree to play them in camera. Instead, approved media will be able to watch the footage over Zoom, and members of the public will be able to watch at a designated location in downtown Toronto.
“So people will hear it and they will see it. They can report on it. They just won’t have a copy of it,” she said.
Last year, thanks to the media intervention, the judge also agreed that Mr. Minassian’s statement to police when he was arrested should be read into court.
There are times when The Globe and Mail will go to court alone to ask for the release of documents, especially in the case of an exclusive story, but in these important public-interest trials, it generally joins a wide coalition of media. The Globe and Mail follows the rulings of the court, but it is necessary to press for the greatest transparency.
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