06.02.2014 09:48 PM

In Tuesday’s Sun: what is the effect of an attack ad on the attacked?

Whenever political parties unleash new ads – as is happening this week in Ontario – reporters inevitably call up the so-called experts.

They call political scientists, image consultants and pollsters. They call political strategists.

But they never call up the people the ads are actually about: the political leaders themselves. If they did – and if the leaders said what they really think – it might be pretty revealing.

In 1993, when John Tory, Allan Gregg and others cooked up an ad that mocked Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis, those of us in the Liberal Party war room were livid. But Chretien’s own reaction was revealing.

He didn’t seem surprised or as angry as the rest of us. He was calm. In retrospect, it almost seemed like he was expecting the Conservatives to stoop that low – so he rose to the occasion.

“God gave me a physical defect, I’ve accepted that since I was a kid,” he told a teary campaign gathering, on his way to a massive Parliamentary majority. “When I was a kid, people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.”

That was the Fall of 1993. More recently, in 2009, another Liberal leader was the target of another barrage of Conservative attack ads. Over and over, Canadians were told Michael Ignatieff was “just visiting.”

At first, Ignatieff dismissed the ads. He laughed at them, but it sounded hollow. It was apparent that the ads bothered him a great deal – and that he was privately worried that they would hurt him in the coming election.

They did, of course. Ignatieff lost his own seat, and the once-great Liberal Party was reduced to its worst showing in history.

Which brings us to the present. For the past year or so, the Conservatives have been targeting another Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. Almost from the moment Trudeau received the tarnished Grit crown, Tories have been running nasty ads about him.

There is a theme that runs through the ads. They show him doing a strip-tease at a charity event. They show him sporting a Pirates of the Caribbean-style goatee, and with long locks. They show him speaking with the faintest hint of a lisp.

Without saying so, it is clear what the Harper Conservatives are doing. They are not simply attempting to depict Trudeau as not being “up to the job” of Prime Minister. As a former Ignatieff advisor remarked: “They’re trying to suggest he’s effeminate.”

Harper and his party would strenuously deny this, naturally, just as they denied they were mocking Jean Chretien’s face. But it is hard to shake the suspicion that the Cons feel Trudeau isn’t manly enough.

Trudeau, perhaps, knows this too.

It arguably explains some of his own behaviour: the boxing matches, the flashing of biceps, the singular brutality with which he has dealt with some within his own party – the Senators, dissidents, pro-lifers.

Trudeau doesn’t speak to anyone at Sun News, so we don’t know whether his insistence on displays of derring-do are authentic, or if he is trying to make a point. But it’s not unfair to wonder if the Conservative ads don’t keep him awake, some nights.

If a reporter ever gets around to asking a leader what he or she thinks about an attack ad, the response is predictable: that it’s offensive, it’s silly, it’s outrageous.

But in their unguarded, private moments, is that what they really think? Probably not.

In the meantime, however, we’ll continue to hear plenty of blather from the political scientists and the image consultants.



  1. !o! says:


    the firework twinkle in the background, the cursive script, and the light airbrushing in the flyer illustrate your point perfectly.

    I’ve always thought that this line of attack rallies the hardcore conservative base, but as you start to stray from that demographic and head towards populations with more mainstream views of reality, the image being crafted by the CPC is much more at odds with other images of JT people have already been exposed to, and it starts to look hokey. You’d think good image sabotaging propaganda would have to be similar enough to the impression that people already have of someone in order to not get subconsciously rejected out of hand. In this case, the ad leaves one with a stronger impression of the type of person creating it, than the target. Not as much backlash as the Chretien ad, but it doesn’t help the CPC that being mean/nasty is a suspicion that people already have of them.

    The in-over-his-head narrative I think may have a bit more traction since it resonates with his tendency to gaffe, and contrasts directly with the boring, strong stable leadership image that they’ve crafted for SH.

    • !o! says:

      sent too quick…

      just to add, the difference of course between visual imagery and abstract narratives about experience is that visual imagery is so much more visceral, commands more immediate reactions. The gut overrides the head more often than not.

    • !o! says:

      I actually didn’t even read the headline when I posted this, or the article I linked. I remembered the flyer in particular, and did a google image search for it. I suppose I should have just linked an image of the flyer in question, since it was what I was talking about. (though I suppose the headline does illustrate the point I’m making)

      There won’t be backlash in the sense that there was w/ Chretien. There *will* and there *is* backlash in the sense that the ads themselves are characterizing the team producing them. They’re not ‘scared’. ‘Scared’ doesn’t apply to them. It’s a stupid narrative. They’re a bunch of boys in short pants who know nothing but partisan politics and have as their mentors a bunch of paranoid types who believe the world is out to get them and the media is biased against conservatives, and the way to deal with all that is perpetual war. They aren’t afraid in the normal sense.

      I agree with you– these are all subtleties that the average Joe won’t appreciate, care about, or understand, but the average Joe does understand his gut reaction, and all of these factors play into the gut reaction subconsciously. The average Joe doesn’t know about the philosophical outlook/background of the strategists surrounding Harper, or how the aesthetics/semiotics/medium of propaganda interact in complex ways, but the average Joe has a gut reaction, and we care about it.

      • !o! says:

        1) “boys in short pants”. It’s not partisan, I’m not partisan. The term itself was popularized by CPC MPs.
        2) Attack ads are effective when they’re effective. This one is, imho, to the base, and isn’t, imho, to most of the rest of us because of imaging dissonance. The image portrayed is too different. It’s an overreach. It’s like overextending your lunge in swordplay, you may get a small opening or do minimal damage, but you leave yourself more open. My argument isn’t that this type of ad is not a type of ad, my argument is that the imaging is too dissonant to be effective.
        3) Context matters. If the CPC was shiny and new, they would not need to worry as much about all this, but they’ve slowly accreted the expectation that they might be nasty, and continuing to overextend in this way confirms that expectation in peoples’ minds.

  2. Tim Jackson says:

    Boomerang syndrome. One thing most propagandists don’t get is that the people, while seemingly naive, still have their eyes open; so, if the Conservatives think portraying their opponent(s) as effeminate and/or homosexual is going to help their cause, they should think about the fact that nobody has ever seen John Baird with a girlfriend, let alone a wife; Jason Kenney is conveniently a forty-something virgin. Nigel Wright? Married by chance? Indeed, the Conservative Party is like Kids in the Hall and the L Word combined. The Trudeaus look like the Waltons by comparison. The people know this, deep down they know this (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) unless, like Dick Cheney, you start firing upon your own hunting party. Ouch. Bring on the attack ads I say – they’re only hurting themselves.

  3. Justin says:

    Wow. I had no idea that Allan Gregg was up to that as well. He seems so personable during his long wided interview sessions on TVO.

  4. terence Quinn says:

    JT is running ads suggesting he is preparing to govern in democratic manner. Those ads will eventually make people understand that the Tories govern by nastiness and secrecy. There is a theme to the Libs ads that will nicely offset the nays Tory stuff and make them look even worse.

    • Bill MacLeod says:


      Rise up. Rise up! RISE UP!

      Or not.

      By the way, I see little evidence of democracy from Trudeau. I saw more of it from Harper back in 2005, and that’s saying something.

    • JH says:

      Except that right now TQ it seems to be Trudeau’s own Liberal party that is questioning the idea of his governing in a democratic matter. There’s also a question about the nastiness and secrecy emanating from his own inner core of advisors. Right now I find more Liberals are talking about this than anyone else.

  5. Lance says:

    Like it is often stated on here, the best way to analyze ads like these is to watch them with the sound off.

    Negative ads like these can be mean and nasty and the often are. But that is the point. At the end of the day, given what people are exposed to on a daily basis in the media, Hollywood, the music industry, and whatever else, people not plugged in to the political machine don’t care if they are mean or not – if they perceive that they are true. I suspect that is why the Conservatives often use ads that feature Trudeau’s own words in script, which again, with the sound off, do the job aptly (the theory being that you can’t argue against your own words). The rest is just fluff and filler.

    The Liberals should just hit back just as hard and just as often. It is not like there isn’t enough material available for them out there to make it work. I admire Trudeau’s commitment to the high road and keeping the ad war clean, but an attitude like that is just going to get him stream rolled.

  6. Ryan Spinney says:

    I don’t agree that the ads are about Mausculinity, I think thier are about competence and making Justin look like a tool in general, which gets emphasised even time Justin has a bozo eruption (his own MPs words).

    I do agree the ads worry Justin, that’s why at that boxing match where he swore for no reason, he talked about how in the ring wealth, fame, ect… didn’t matter, it was a sign that on some level he knows he is in over his head and does not deserve the position he is in.

  7. Michael Bluth says:

    For an ad to backfire it must be obviously offensive and/or clearly false. If an ad is true then it will resonate with the target audience.

    The Chretien ads backfired because they were obviously offensive.

    The Soldiers in our streets ads failed because they were clearly false.

    The Just Visiting ads … where is Iggy now?

    Is it really clear the primary goal of the ads is to make Trudeau look effeminate? That’s an interesting reaction, but probably not what the target audience is motivated by. The just not up for the job goal is pretty clear. Shrewd tactic. Can JT prove he is up to the job?

    It took Harper two elections to kick the scary label enough to win power.

  8. TrueNorthist says:

    “They show him sporting a Pirates of the Caribbean-style goatee, and with long locks.”

    Er, no. That was his Guy Fawkes look. It was all the rage with the kiddies back then.

  9. Andrew Stotts says:

    If the corrupt Liberals win this election it will be the public service unions that will have put them over the top.


    • sezme says:

      I’d take the bait and wrassle you to the ground, verbally, but your comment so was completely off-topic, that I have grave doubts about your ability to have an adult conversation.

    • Al in Cranbrook says:

      Which is by no means assured. Few people outside of unions have much sympathy for them, and I suspect a considerable share of union membership do not care much for unions, particularly their politics.

      Unions run the risk of making this election all about them.

      That’s a battle they will lose.

      • Michael Bluth says:

        Watch out Al, you might get wrassled to the ground verbally! lol

        The OPPA is going to lose this one in the court of public opinion. If I still lived in Ontario I’d love sport a PC bumper sticker (do campaigns even make bumper stickers anymore?), and zoom around some backroads just to get a ticket from a member of the OPP. That would make a heck of an argument in court. Would get a sh*t ton of publicity and lead to a clean out of the leadership of the OPPA.

        Somebody please steal this idea!

  10. Al in Cranbrook says:

    Frankly, I have little sympathy here, considering all the trumped up crap for which the CPC has been accused…


  11. e.a.f. says:

    was absolutely outraged about the cons ads attacking Chretien. It said more about the cons than it did about Chretien. Chretien’s response was a classic and it most likely appealed to anyone who had every had fun poked at them by others. What was clear, was Chretien had a sense of “self”.

    Whatever the cons are trying with Trudeau, Jr. hasn’t really “impacted” on my brain. Its just more of their tasteless stuff.

    Biard is the worst kept “secret” in Ottawa. The perennial “virgin” another case of . ….whatever it is, they want it in the closet. A person’s sexuality is so yesterday.

    It is time the federal Liberals and Ndp start their own attack ads about harpie and his herd. Just the TFW and Veteran fiasco’s are enough to work with. Then there is his latest ant communist rant, etc. Its just a question of money.

    • Al in Cranbrook says:

      Excuse me? His “latest anti-communist rant”???

      You have a problem with that???

      Do you know anything at all about the history of the 20th century? Do you even care?


    • Al in Cranbrook says:

      With Warren’s indulgence, allow me to relate a first hand story as told to me, perhaps all the more relevant given the date of June 6th coming up…

      Close to 40 years ago, during one of my first real jobs, I worked with a fellow, welder by trade, who one day told me about how he came to Canada…

      He grew up in Hungary. In 1956, just ahead of the Soviet invasion to crush Hungarians’ revolt against communist tyranny, and at the ripe old age of 18, he fled his homeland, leaving his family and everything he ever knew behind. He arrived in Austria, where he spent the next six months in a refugee camp. He was asked one day where he would like to live; America, Australia, and Canada were three of his options. He chose Canada, for little more reason than tidbits of things he heard over his short life.

      He, along with many others, ended up on a ship headed for Canada. While on the ship he was shown books, mostly of pictures, about Canada. He chose, based on nothing but a couple pictures, a small town in BC, called Penticton. On arrival, he and large group of his countrymen were put on a train headed across country to Vancouver. Along the way at every stop, some got off the train. When it arrived in Penticton, he was one of three left. It was the middle of the night, and found himself alone at the train station. He couldn’t speak a word of English. Shortly, an immigration official showed up, and drove him to a home where he would be billeted for a time until he found work and got settled in.

      He told me that the only thing he could remember of the next three days, such was the shock to his mind, was walking across the street to Kings Park where a Sunday baseball game was being played. No soldiers, no police, no guns. No military armed vehicles. People coming and going as they pleased. Kids running around playing. People being free to do what they wanted. It was very literally and completely incomprehensible to him.

      Twenty years later, that still was all he could remember of his first three days in his new home in Canada.

      He then said to me, “Canadians take so much for granted, and worry about such stupid little things, they have no idea.”

      I have never forgotten this. I have since worked with two fellows who grew up in Nazi Germany, and experienced those horrors first hand.

      Lest we forget, eh? Sadly, most Canadians of last couple generations don’t in the first place have even the slightest clue.

      • doris says:

        Perhaps Al you should not be lauding the behaviour of the victims of Fascism or communism but comparing the first steps of the regimes and comparing them to the practitioners of the present government. The Fair Elections Act, State spying on the citizenry, the collection of data without warrants and the refusal to listen to the critics should be an alarm bell going off in your finely tuned brain attuned to communistic practices as it is. Just who are the Fascists today, I’ll give you a clue Al they ain’t in Spain or Germany or Italy any longer.

      • domenico says:

        A good ad. Trudeau looks comfortable, confident, not angry, and with hair that obviously his own. “Getting ready to lead” to me said getting ready to step in when the government changes.

      • david ray says:

        what does this non sequitorious word salad have to do with the question of how attack ads affect the attackee of said ads?

        • Al in Cranbrook says:

          “non sequitorious”???

          Me thinks your own word salad could use a little dressing.

          Anyway, call me old fashioned, but cavalier, WTF who cares, references to communism get me instantly wound up…albeit not nearly as much as those who still actually believe in such patently barbaric and murderous crap!

          • doris says:

            Yet similar practises performed by “democratic” governments don’t bother you? Why?

    • Michael Bluth says:

      If a person’s sexuality is so yesterday why refer to Baird’s?

      That wouldn’t be hypocrisy would it?

  12. Apostate says:

    Having never seen M. Trudeau up close, I still don’t put much credence in the Con attack ads. I did see M. Chretien up close once, playing pool with some young campaign workers at a downtown Vancouver pool hall in ’93……He was approachable, and it was obvious he was having a good time, and enjoyed interacting with his admirers.

    Mr. Ignatieff I met twice…..both times he was cold, aloof, and looked like he’d like to be anywhere else than in the company of proles.

    M. Chretien I think made you want to go the distance for…nay…..with, him(as exemplified by the undying devotion of this fine forum’s august sponsor)

    Mr Ignatieff did nothing to make you want to go the distance……his extemporaneous “Rise Up!” call during a campaign speech last election fell flat, because he never really connected with his workers, or the general public, ever, regardless of the Con hatchet job.

    M. Trudeau…..while having the royal jelly, appears to connect with ordinary party workers, and the general public……and while the Con hatchet job may leave a few marks….I suspect his warmth and apparent concern(real or contrived) for ordinary folks like myself, will help him carry the day, as it did for M. Chretien.

    At least that is my hope.

    • Andrew Stotts says:

      Your emotional opinion of Justin Trudeau is just that – emotional. It’s not enough to be approachable and warm to lead the country as it’s prime minister. You must be a legitimate and authentic leader who stands for something based on lifelong conviction and not some scripted statements plus an alluring smile. Marc Garneau repeatedly attacked Justin for being short on experience, gravitas, content and pretty much any other of the usual qualities required to lead a political party, during the leadership campaign. Garneau then tossed in the towel and admitted that “It’s very clear Justin Trudeau is the favourite among the voters. I’m just conceding the reality of the situation.” Garneau surrendered to Trudeau-Butts-Martin!

      So what do we have with Trudeau? He’s young, telegenic, superficial and popular, and a certain segment of Canadians will flock to him, particularly LPC members who don’t enjoy sitting out in the cold and he is their last and only hope. Is Trudeau the answer to Liberal prayers and will he survive the attacks by the Conservatives and in particular the NDP who will be fighting tooth and nail to retain their Quebec base?

      Early attack ads serve as a visual “meme” or mind virus that embeds itself in the subconscious mind of the viewer and then takes hold when people are forced to make a voting decision. So far attack ads have apparently been effective for the Conservatives given the election results. What we do know is there is an arsenal of Justin gaffes that can be used against him during an election campaign. Current attack ads are just fertilizing minds with adverse images while the verbal message is not that important. The verbal messages in attack ads will become significant during the election campaign when people’s ears are perked up and listening adroitly. Gonna be fun…..

      • Al in Cranbrook says:

        I think it’s worth noting that virtually nobody is venturing forth to offer favorable comparisons to P.E.T. (Hint: There are none to be had.)

        Every politician, I don’t care who they are, every now and then, sooner or later, will jam his foot in his/her own mouth by saying something poorly thought through or considered. That’s just being human. People innately understand that, and most to one extant or another will forgive such.

        But with this guy, it’s so far been an pretty much an endless string of this kind of stuff. He can barely get through a ten minute scrum or interview without stepping into some proverbial shinola right up to his knees.

        Forget about the CPC, I’ve no doubt that the NDP, in very serious danger of losing a pile of seats in Quebec, and thus their Official Opposition status, come next election are going to go after young Trudeau like pitt bulls. Mulcair will be ripping into him with every breath he can muster.

        And there’s just no end of ammunition with which to do it.

        If I’m working in the CPC backrooms, my council would be to save the jake for the main event, and in the meantime sit back and enjoy the show.

      • terence Quinn says:

        JT’s ads are doing the same thing in reverse. They are preparing the subconscious as you call it to understand he can lead which is a completely opposite picture painted by a tainted regime and its even more tainted leader. The mind virus you speak of has been effectively countered so far and it will be met with a stronger force than Harpercon can withstand.

        • Lance says:

          Oh brother. Lead? Effectively countered? LOL They only things Trudeau has done to prepare the subconscious in that regard is to affirm everything that the Tory ads are saying.

  13. Andrew Stotts says:

    Here is the new Liberal ad featuring Trudeau and titled “Focused on you”:


    The ad is on liberal.ca and is intended to raise contributions thusly:

    Put this ad on TV

    You have to see this — it’s our new ad launching this month. It’s about how we Liberals are working hard, building a new team and a new plan to lead Canada in 2015.

    Twice in the last year the Conservatives attacked our positive movement. Each of those times, you stood with me and helped launch our TV ads. You stopped them from doing real damage. I need you to do it again.

    Watch the ad now — and then donate what you can to stand with me against the Conservative attacks. Let’s rally together and take our positive message to voters ready for change.

    It’s a simple, straight forward, unpretentious video only intended to sell LPC members on his leadership of the party. It won’t gain votes but it may raise money for the party. There are no impact “memes” (mind virus) in this video and is quite forgettable. Meanwhile the Conservative ads to members use fearmongering to extract money, and quite effectively too. What do you think?

    • Just askin' says:

      I believe Trudeau’s team resides in an alternate universe in which they are as skilled as Barack Obama’s campaign team. They also seem to forget that an Obama presidency was the perfect way for Americans to apologize to the rest of the world for Iraq, and for various other mistakes (e.g. slavery and segregation).

      I don’t see Trudeau’s group tricking the rest of Canada into thinking Trudeau is Canada’s version of Obama, much less the Second Coming of his father. Obama is a great orator. Trudeau…not.

      • Andrew Stotts says:

        Trudeau’s team have now declared he is a fully matured leader who should be taken seriously because he has completed his leader-in-training process! He’s a genuine “leader” now with strong developed political views… like no anti-abortionists in his Liberal party except for the old veterans who he has mercifully “grandfathered” while his generational change decree kicks in.

        Trudeau would be hilarious if he wasn’t so pathetic in his attempt to con Canadians into thinking he is a consummate actor-leader with a proven political mind of his own. I sometimes wonder what the Liberal party would have looked like now if Garneau or Rae were the leader……

  14. I’m not sure attack ads work coming from the Dips and Liberals. The MSM already demonizes Harper. (An example: The Tory’s propose that people need to show ID at the polls. Outrage! Anti-Democracy! Coup d’etat!… Nobody mentions that you need ID to vote in an Ontario provincial election.)

    So if you do a Harper attack ad, you have to up the ante. Hence the “troops in the streets” bullshit… JT is better off following Obama’s positive message meme. People who hate Harper, hate Harper. They don’t need a reminder.

    Meanwhile the Tories should stick to showing JT to be a dummy, which everybody suspects he is. Just like people knew Iggy was insincere, and was just visiting.

  15. Lance says:

    Off topic, but still of interest to those that care, a CTV poll following tonight’s debate and who they thought won –

    Tim Hudak – 495 (54 %)
    Kathleen Wynne – 259 (28 %)
    Andrea Horwath – 159 (17 %)

    Utterly unscientific of course, but there it is.


  16. Paul says:

    Warren – missing in your story were the Martin idiots who elected Harper with the ‘tanks on the streets’ ad. Probably even helped him win a majority by positioning him as such a dictator that he looked liberal when he was elected. Any other comments on liberal attack ads provincial or federal?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *