When the going gets tough, politics gets nasty

“We are now looking at perhaps what will be the most divisive and negative and nasty political campaign in Canada’s history.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made this prediction last fall, long before the SNC-Lavalin affair exploded.

This recent scandal all but ensures it’s going to get nastier. It wasn’t long ago that Trudeau was promising to stick to the 2015 playbook and stay positive: “No personal attacks, strong differentiation on issues of policy. I will not engage in personal attacks and none of our team will either,” he said. “We proved that the politics of negativity and attack don’t work.”

Actually, there’s plenty of evidence that attack ads do work. They worked against Stéphane Dion (“Not a leader. Not worth the risk.”), and they worked against Michael Ignatieff (“He’s been away for 34 yrs. He’s just visiting.”) They almost worked against Justin Trudeau, as opponents painted him as “Just not ready.” These ads weren’t inspired or inspiring, but they were highly effective. Then Trudeau went up the down escalator promising real change—an ad that probably helped reframe his image more than any other scripted message during the campaign.

But it wasn’t all positive. Trudeau opened the campaign by attacking Prime Minister Stephen Harper, outlining how policies enacted during his 10 years in power had made it harder for many Canadians to get ahead, before telling voters what his plan would achieve. It was what political strategists call a contrast ad, offering information about both the candidate and the opponent, which, they argue, is different from a pure negative ad. You can call it what you want, but it’s still an attack ad.

The past three years have been relatively quiet on the political advertising front, as we saw a pause in what has been described as the “permanent campaign.” In their book Permanent Campaigning in Canada, Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson and Anna Lennox, argue that “election campaigning never stops. That is the new reality of politics and government in Canada, where everyone from staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office to backbench MPs practice political marketing and communication as though the official campaign were still underway.”

The most visible manifestation of permanent campaigning under the previous government was its relentless use of attack ads outside election campaigns. We recently got a taste of it with the spoof of a Heritage Minute created by the Conservative Party of Canada, which was quickly pulled after Historica Canada complained. The massive amount of blatantly partisan government advertising was another significant part of permanent campaigning. Those ads weren’t from the Government of Canada, they were from the Harper Government. And they promoted its Economic Action Plan with a visual identity that easily blended with the Party’s identity.

The Liberals went negative on this issue during the 2015 campaign, claiming that the Conservatives spent $93 million of taxpayer’s money promoting themselves. It’s still on the Liberal party’s  website.

The Liberals, meanwhile, ran on a promise of Real Change by banning partisan government ads. The policy was clear: “The federal government should use advertising to promote government programs, not partisan agendas.” But if the policy was clear, its implementation remains incomplete: we have yet to see the appointment of the Advertising Commissioner the Liberals promised would help the Auditor General oversee government advertising, ensuring that ads are non-partisan and represent a legitimate public service announcement.

And while Trudeau predicted the next campaign would be the nastiest in our history, the SNC-Lavalin controversy might just take it to an indecent level. Even the Clerk of the Privy Council predicts things could turn ugly, saying “I’m worried that somebody’s going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign.”

Whatever damage the SNC-Lavalin scandal might have on the Liberal brand, the next campaign will ultimately be a referendum on Justin Trudeau. We can expect the Conservatives to revert to negative ads reminding us he wasn’t ready after all. And despite promises to stay positive, we can expect Trudeau to skip the escalator and opt for the boxing ring.

As an industry, there isn’t much we can do to calm the rhetoric on social media. But we can at least attempt to regulate paid political advertising. There’s no reason paid political ads shouldn’t face the same scrutiny as ads for goods and services. Ad Standards Canada has sent advisories about political ads in the past, but has no authority over their content. All it could do in 2015 was “request and encourage political parties and interest groups to adhere to its principles.”

In her book Shopping For Votes, Susan Delacourt wrote that the “ASC receives numerous complaints expressing concerns about election advertising. In their complaints, members of the public tell ASC they find advertising by political parties is often misleading, and that it unfairly disparages and denigrates individual candidates or party leaders.”

Perhaps this needs to change, so that the nasty stuff is at least truthful.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.