Musings —04.28.2013 12:23 PM—
Does positive work?
Canadian politicians such as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and British Columbia NDP Leader Adrian Dix are hoping the answer — your answer, to be precise — is yes. Both men are currently wagering their political futures on the notion that positive trumps negative. It’s a risky strategy.
In Trudeau’s case, the Conservative Party’s “Justin Over His Head” ad campaign has been underway for more than a week. The spots, which mock Trudeau’s style, appearance and some comments he’s made in the distant past, are showing up during TV programs typically watched by people who don’t think much about politics. The ads are backed by what looks to be a big media buy. And, based on anecdotal evidence, they’re having an effect.
My source, in this regard, is my 11-year-old son. “Daddy,” he said to me last weekend, “have you seen those ads making fun of Justin Trudeau? They’re funny. He looks silly.”
In Dix’s case, the frontrunner in the B.C. election campaign has also been the focus of tough ads produced by a front group linked to his main opponent, the governing B.C. Liberals. The group, “Concerned Citizens for B.C.,” has financed a $1 million ad campaign against Dix, targeting his party’s past spending record and the backdating of an internal memo nearly15 years ago.
Media reports last week suggest that, while Dix is still far ahead as the voters’ preference, the ads are starting to take a toll — they’re getting mentioned, unprompted, on the hustings. That’s never a good thing.
So, Trudeau and Dix are being bombarded with an onslaught of attack ads. In both cases, the leaders have decided not to fight fire with fire. They have explicitly ruled out “going negative” and have decided to appeal to people’s better natures in their advertising.
Can it work? Given the right circumstances, it can. In 1993, when (full disclosure) I was running Jean Chretien’s war room, we federal Liberals didn’t really have any attack ads about then-Conservative leader Kim Campbell. In that campaign, our entire focus was pushing negative stories about Campbell through so-called earned media — newspapers, radio and TV.
So, when the Conservatives unleashed the Mother of All Attack Ads — the infamous spots mocking Chretien’s face — we didn’t have anything to offset it.
It didn’t matter in the end. The Conservative ads offended voters from coast to coast, and helped reduce the once-great Conservatives to two seats in the House of Commons. Staying mainly positive with our advertising worked.
Trudeau, unlike Dix, has responded directly to his opponent’s attack ads with an ad of his own. Perched on the edge of a desk in a classroom, Trudeau says “Canadians deserve better,” but declines to rebut the Conservatives’ allegations. Is that wise? Does his ad work?
Here’s three tips on how to decide for yourself:
n Watch the Grit spot with the sound off. TV is a visual medium. When you force yourself to focus on only the pictures, Trudeau looks pretty good. But when he’s tie-less and in a classroom setting, does he look like a prime minister? Not yet. More like a guy selling Registered Education Savings Plans.
n Watch it with your emotional brain, not your logical brain. As I wrote in my book Fight The Right, political decisions are mostly emotional. The emotional response the Trudeau ad evokes is neutral; it doesn’t make you dislike Harper, necessarily, or like Trudeau. If anything, my emotional response was, he looks young for his age. That may or may not be a good thing. For Barack Obama in 2008, it was good.
n Watch it for the one thing it wants to tell you. This is where Trudeau’s spot is unclear. Is its purpose to diss the Conservatives? To promote Trudeau? To celebrate school teachers? If the objective was introduce Trudeau to the public as Liberal leader, it does that. But the staccato, fragmented delivery was off-putting, for this viewer.
Trudeau and Dix are rolling the dice, hoping their big leads in the polls — and their positive approach — will carry them to victory.
We’ll all know, soon enough, if their high-stakes gamble is going to pay off.