Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.
Now for part two of our exploration of historical negative campaigning from Canadian federal politics. Last week was attack posters, this week television attack ads. The top five most memorable Canadian attack ads to be more specific.
Historians trace the start of televised political attack ads to the “Daisy Girl” commercial that aired during the Lyndon B. Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater 1964 election campaign. The ad shows a little girl counting the petals she plucks off a daisy. Then an atomic bomb goes off. An ominous voice-over by LBJ follows, “We must either love each other or we must die,” and then the ad ends telling viewers to vote for him. The ad ran just once, (you can imagine just how horrified 1960s audiences were), but it changed the political game forever. Now, our politicians have yet to include nuclear annihilation in their attacks, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t come up with some seriously ridiculous ads.
5. Borders – Liberal Party of Canada (1988)
“Just how much are we giving away in the Mulroney free trade deal? Our water? Our health care? Our culture?”
Ah, the old fear of Americans taking over Canada. Except this time it’s the Liberal Party pushing that fear, not the Conservatives. The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was the primary issue of the 1988 election. The Progressive Conservatives were for it; the Liberals against. Liberal Party leader John Turner accused Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of “selling out Canada” and stated that he would tear up the agreement if elected.
The sentiment behind the ad was part of the larger fear of the negative impact the agreement might have had on the Canadian economy. The idea that enabling free trade was a slippery slope towards Canada becoming the 51st state and that geographic borders are so easy to rearrange are, of course, ridiculous but it is the over-the-top nature of the ad that makes it memorable. Free trade and Mulroney won the election easily.
4. Michael Ignatieff: Just Visiting – Conservative Party (2011)
This attack ad against Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff by the Conservative Party tried to get voters to see him as arrogant, self-absorbed, and “not in it for you or for Canada.” The ad itself is a bit on the silly side. An image of a young Ignatieff appears on a fake cover of GQ magazine with the headline, “TV’s Bionic Liberal Is He For Real?” Quotes made by Ignatieff from the early 90s are dragged up to try to discredit him. Despite this, the ad does raise a fair question. For an individual who has spent the majority of his adult life and career outside of the country, are they really the right person to become prime minister? This ad follows a format that the Conservatives first started in their take down of a previous Liberal leader (more on that later). Why isn’t this ad higher on the list? It is Ignatieff, not the ad, who sunk himself. He played into the perception of arrogance that the Conservatives were trying to project of him and lost not only the election, but his seat in the House of Commons as well.
3. Soldiers with Guns in Canadian Cities – Liberal Party (2006)
This one isn’t higher on the list because it did not actually air on television. It was only online and was quickly taken down due to widespread mockery. It was a reference to the Conservatives’ platform that called for 100 regular troops and 400 reservists to be based in major Canadian cities for humanitarian or disaster relief efforts, but the ad makes no mention of this. Instead it contained a foreboding drumbeat, a blurry picture of Stephen Harper that became more clear overtime, and the following voice-over: “Stephen Harper actually announced he wants to increase military presence in our cities. Canadian cities. Soldiers with guns. In our cities. In Canada. We did not make this up.”
The media had a field day. Parodies ads were created both online and off, notably by This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce. The National Post ran things like “Stephen Harper has a dog. You know who else had a dog? Hitler. Adolf Hitler. That’s who. Did Stephen Harper train his dog to attack racial minorities on command? We don’t know. He’s not saying.” Even Jon Stewart and The Daily Show got in on the fun by making a parody ad, but theirs had anti-Canadian rhetoric in it. (If someone can find a video of this online, I would be much obliged.)
2. Stéphane Dion: Not a Leader – Conservative Party (2007)
At the risk of sounding like a horrible person, this attack ad is sort of funny. During the Liberal leadership debate, Michael Ignatieff took Stéphane Dion to task over his failures as the Environment Minister. Greenhouse gas emissions increased and air quality decreased under his watch between 2004 and 2006.
This ad was actually launched before the election campaign. It was sprung on Canadians during Super Bowl Sunday in 2007. Why? Political framing. Dion had won the Liberal leadership in December 2006 and the majority of the general public did not know much about him. By striking early, the Tories were able to cast Dion as a weak leader. After the ad, one of the first things that would pop into people’s minds when they thought of Dion would be the clueless shrug and no amount of campaigning or political reframing could fix it.
Note: Harper later apologized for the puffin defecating on Dion’s shoulder.
Moreover, the Tories got a lot of millage out of the television spot. The shrugging pose was used repeatedly outside of the commercial, appearing in flyers and various ads created by the Tories across the country. The ad succeeded in making Dion look silly and incompetent and Stephen Harper was reelected with a minority government. Due to the success of the ad, they went after Michael Ignatieff in the same manner.
1. Think Twice (aka “The Face” Ad) – Progressive Conservative Party (1993)
How do you hand someone an election in 30 seconds? Fairly certain this was the reaction of Jean Chrétien’s campaign member upon seeing the ad:
The ad shows pictures of Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien’s face up-close, taken at a recent campaign event. Each shot highlights his facial deformity and the voice-over asks questions like, “Is this a prime minister?” “Doesn’t he understand the questions or the answers? Or both?” “Jean Chrétien, a prime minister?” And then the ad above ends with the words ‘Think Twice’ with ominous music in the background. In another version of the ad, a woman’s voice says, “I personally would be very embarrassed if he were to become the Prime Minister of Canada.”
When Chrétien was a child, he suffered from a Bell’s palsy attack which left the left side of his face partially paralyzed. You never, ever, ever make fun of disabilities, let alone suggest that having one renders an individual intellectually inferior. You didn’t just have the Canadian public, the media, and the Liberal Party denouncing the video, PC candidates and supporters also felt the ads were disgraceful as well. “Ritual political suicide on a historic scale,” as Warren Kinsella puts it. This ad became a textbook example for all future campaigns of what not to do in an attack ad. Ads that get too personal generally backfire. It is best to stick to attacking a candidate’s political track record, their policies, or things that they said. This ad said to voters that the Progressive Conservative Party would do anything to get elected.
Chretien responded to the attack ads the following day. “Last night, the Conservative Party reached a new low; they tried to make fun of the way I look. God gave me a physical defect, and I accepted that since I’m a kid. It’s true, that I speak on one side of my mouth. I’m not a Tory, I don’t speak on both sides of my mouth.” [Source]
This attack ad is number one on the list because it is both the most effective in Canadian history (just not in the way that the Progressive Conservative Party had intended) and the biggest screw up in the history of advertising/negative campaigning in Canadian elections. Jean Chrétien and the Liberals dominated in 1993, winning 177 seats. The Progressive Conservatives won 2 seats.
Fun Fact: The geniuses behind the release of “The Face” ads? Allan Gregg, one of the top PC campaign managers and current Toronto Mayor John Tory, who was PC campaign director at the time.
Thank you for reading. Agree with the list? Disagree? What attack ads from the past would you have included? Let me know!
Kinsella, Warren. The War Room: Political Strategies for Business, NGOs, and Anyone Who Wants to Win. Toronto: Dundurn Press. (2007).
“Martin says he only approved transcript of controversial ‘soldiers’ ad” CBC News. Jan 12, 2006. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/martin-says-he-only-approved-transcript-of-controversial-soldiers-ad-1.606742
Soderlund, Walter, Advertising in the 1993 Federal Election. Canadian Parliamentary Review (2015). Accessed from: http://www.revparl.ca/english/issue.asp?param=152&art=1031
“The framing of Stéphane Dion,” CBC News. Sept 17, 2008. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/the-framing-of-st%C3%A9phane-dion-1.757611
“Tories launch attack ads aimed at Dion,” CBC News. Jan 29, 2007. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/tories-launch-attack-ads-aimed-at-dion-1.642528
To watch more ads from past elections as well as the current one, check out this Youtube playlist.