Tony Schwartz, the father of modern political advertising, is speaking.
“A political ad is about things that are important to the people at the time an election is taking place,” says Schwartz, from his home in New York City. “The best political commercials do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings, and provide a context for him to express his feelings.”
Schwartz should know. The Democrat ad man — who developed the legendary 1964 “Daisy” ad, featuring a little girl plucking petals off a daisy, and warning of nuclear war if the Republicans took the White House — was considered a political genius. His Daisy ad (after which, full disclosure, I named my political consulting firm) is considered the best political spot ever made. It ran only once, on Sept. 7, 1964, and helped to return Lyndon B. Johnson to the White House with a landslide.
Shortly after I interviewed him for one of my books, Schwartz died. But it’d be interesting to hear what the father of Daisy had to say about the battery of TV spots the Conservative Party unleashed on Canadians on Monday morning.
There are five, with one about Stephen Harper’s leadership, one about Jack Layton and his desire for a coalition — and three taking aim at Michael Ignatieff, on taxes, on coalitions, and his attachment (or lack thereof) to Canada. As with virtually every Conservative talking point in recent months, the ads mainly seek to scare Canadians about the prospect of a coalition between the Grits, the separatists and the socialists.
“(Ignatieff) didn’t come back for you,” the ads’ tag line somberly (and vaguely) intones.
The visuals and content of the three anti-Ignatieff spots are less obscure. They batter the Liberal leader on his ambition, on what he thinks about our flag, and his willingness — as he did in an unhelpful 2004 interview — to describe himself as a “tax and spend” Liberal.
But on the central thesis of the ads — that Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe intend to form a coalition — the ads are an utter failure. They do not, as Schwartz said, “surface (voters’) feelings” about an eventual coalition.
That’s because Canadians aren’t frightened about a coalition. English Canadians don’t like the Bloc very much — but if Duceppe’s party is out of the equation, voters are quite OK with a coalition, in fact.
The issue was hotly debated last summer. A poll conducted by Harris-Decima right afterwards found more than half of Canadians, from coast to coast, were fine with some sort of co-operation between the Liberals and the NDP. About 60% said they supported ideas ranging from a non-compete agreement to an outright merger.
The main focus of the Reformatory ads are off the mark because, one, the Conservative Party itself is the result of a coalition. Two, in 2000, Harper himself secretly signed a deal for a coalition with the Tories and the Bloc. Three, some of the most revered Canadians — Jean Chretien and Ed Broadbent — like the idea. Four, even Harper’s most ardent suitors, like Lorne Gunter, call his coalition fear mongering “fairy tales.”
I’ve put together a few attack ads in my day. To work, they have to “surface feelings” about something.
Problem is, these ads “surface feelings” about something Canadians aren’t afraid of. At all.
— Kinsella is a lawyer, consultant and Liberal Party spin-doctor.