The Art of Negative Campaigning

Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.

Union Government Campaign Poster, (c. 1917).

Far from being a staple of the modern era, negative campaigning and politics have always gone hand-in-hand. When it comes to campaign ads designed to attack political opponents, that has a long history as well. Archaeologists who excavated the ruins of Pompeii discovered ads defaming political candidates on ash-covered walls. Needless to say, Canada also has a tradition of political mudslinging stemming all the way back to the days of Sir. John A Macdonald. Nowadays when we think of negative campaigning/advertising, television attack ads probably come first to mind. Before we even touch on those sorts of ads though, let’s wind the clock back a bit first. This post will take a look at some historical federal campaign posters from the context of the time they were produced.

Loyal Canadians Take Your Choice (1891)

Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservative Party’s campaign for the 1891 election centered around national identity. Their rhetoric was full of anti-Americanism and arguments about loyalty to the British Empire. Although there was no actual threat from down south, historian J. Murray Beck says that Macdonald truly believed that Canada’s independence was at risk of being lost. The nation was still young and its identity was blurred between the lines of a colony and a country.

Laying Out the Grit Campaign (1891).

Canada for Sale (1891).

Not-So-Fun Fact: The man with the turban is supposed to be Sir Richard Cartwright—a Liberal MP who was actually an old white guy and a vocal critic of the Conservatives. When you’re appealing to 19th century voters, apparently racist art was the way to go…

Given the perceived threat, Macdonald had no qualms about his negative campaigning tactics. He insulted Wilfred Laurier and the Liberals, assailing not only their political policies but their characters as well. The Conservatives depicted America as a land of imperialistic greed and cast the Liberals as willing partners in the plot to strip Canada of not only its resources, but its freedom too. In doing so, the Conservatives succeeded in making the election more than just picking between two parties; Canadians were choosing what sort of a future they wanted for their country. Macdonald’s vision of the future won the day. He was re-elected, but passed away a few months later at the age of 76.

Union Government Campaign Poster, (c. 1917).

Union Government Campaign Poster (c. 1917).

Well that escalated quickly. Robert Borden wasn’t messing around.

The 1917 federal election was one of the most bitter and divisive ones in Canadian history. At the core of the election was the issue of conscription. With World War I waging on, casualties mounting, and voluntary recruits dwindling, Borden formed a coalition (hence the “Union Government”) of Conservative and Liberal MPs who felt that conscription was necessary to strengthen Canada’s military. On the opposing sides were Henri Bourassa, an influential French-Canadian politician, and Liberal Party leader Wilfred Laurier. Both men were anti-conscription, but for different reasons. Bourassa felt Canada’s interests were not at stake and that only volunteers should be sent overseas. Meanwhile Laurier was worried Quebec would be lost to “radicals” like Bourassa, therefore abandoning the Liberal Party and possibly the country as well.

Like I said though, Borden wasn’t having any of it. Although you had both sides accusing the other of betrayal and treason, Borden triumphed in the end. He made sure conscription won by introducing two new laws. The first law disenfranchised Canadian citizens who had immigrated after 1902 and were born in enemy countries. Their votes were given to the female relatives of soldiers. The other law was the Military Voters Act which enabled soldiers overseas to choose which riding their vote would be counted in or to allow their party to choose a riding. Hmm….can’t imagine why the Conservatives won a majority that year.

King’s Mixed Pickles (c. 1925)

This poster created by the Conservative Party under Arthur Meighen pokes fun at William Lyon Mackenzie King’s tendency for “flip-flopping” on issues; he was known to be easily swayed by public opinion. Historians point out however that King’s adherence to the public voice and knowing what Canadians wanted undoubtedly enabled in political longevity. He is our longest serving Prime Minister, clocking in at over 21 years on top.

The Helm in Safe Hands (c. 1925).

Nevertheless, it is interesting that the Pickles poster and the one above are quite tame in their jabs at the opposition. Meighen despised King, finding his political tactics (being all things to all men) repulsive and King’s political success baffling. Meighen was a man of strong convictions and believed in convincing the public of the virtue of his policies and vision for the country. While attacks were benign on the artistic front, Meighen saved the mudslinging for debates. His eloquence and ability to verbally cut his opponents down to size made him the victor of election debates, but never overly popular in the public eye. The 1925 federal election was kind of odd. Although Meighen actually won this electoral round, it was a short lived victory because the King-Byng Affair quickly brought about Meighen’s downfall.

Fuddle-Duddle Dollar (c. 1974)

Props to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada for coming up with this creative ad. Fuddle-Duddle Dollar with Emperor Pierre Trudeau. The name of the bill is a throwback to the “Fuddle-Duddle Incident” of 1971 in which Prime Minister Trudeau was accused of mouthing “f— off” to opposition members. During a press conference, reporters badgered him about what he allegedly said:

Reporter: What were you thinking…when you moved your lips?
Trudeau: What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say ‘fuddle duddle’ or something like that? God, you guys!

This was an actual political scandal.

Anyways, the Canadian economy was in the midst of a recession during the 1974 general election. Aside from the deflated loonie, keeping a control over rapid inflation was also a major issue. PC candidate Robert Stanfield wanted a 90 day wage and price freeze to tackle the issue of inflation. So you can imagine how “excited” Canadians were about that. Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals were re-elected with a majority government.

There are various studies on the effectiveness of negative campaigning. Some argue it works while others disagree and suggest that instead it just ends up being more memorable in the long-run. Regardless, negative campaigning has and will continue to be a mainstay of politics. What changes is the form it takes. Overtime, artistic posters have fallen in favor of television attack ads, which is what we will be looking at next week.

Thank you for reading!


All pictures courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Burant, Jim, “Posters and Broadsides in Canada,” Library and Archives Canada, July 28, 2009. Accessed from:

Cook, Tim, “Our first duty is to win, at any cost” Sir Robert Borden during the Great War. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies. Vol. 13, No. 3, Spring 2011.

“Retro Canadian election posters from the pre-digital age,” CBC News. Accessed from:

Plummer, Kevin, “Historicist: ‘Fighting with a feather pillow'” Torontoist. December 2009. Accessed from:

Wood, Patricia K. Defining “Canadian”: Anti-Americanism and Identity in Sir John A Macdonald’s Nationalism. Journal of Canadian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 2. Summer 2001.


7 thoughts on “The Art of Negative Campaigning

    • cadeauca says:

      Hahaha, I know right?

      If they were accusing each other of treason and whatnot, I’m surprised they went with the word “slacker” in the end. Also when you think about it, it would take a lot more effort to try to persuade men to volunteer as opposed to writing a law and forcing the issue. That’s much easier.


    • cadeauca says:

      It is anyone’s guess at this point! I’m calling for a minority government regardless of the victor, but polls have them basically in dead heat so I’m really not sure who is going to come out on top.

      As for modern examples, there are lots. I steered cleared of them because I thought they would be out of place on a history blog. But from this election alone off the top of my head I can think of television attack ads including “Nice Hair!”, “We can’t afford him,” and the one where the NDP take Harper to task over their scandals. Artistic campaign posters like the ones in my post don’t really exist anymore. They have been replaced with tv ads, flyers that have the candidate’s face with something plastered over it (ex: “Just not ready” over Trudeau), and/or internet memes thanks to the rise of mudslinging online/on Twitter particularly.

      The follow up to this post will have more modern-ish examples (c. 2000s), but I won’t be talking about the 2015 one. We see enough of those on television!

      Liked by 1 person

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