Election 2021: (Mostly) more of the same

More so than in previous elections, the major parties’ battle for the hearts and minds of voters is being waged on social media, with literally thousands of ads flooding the feeds of Canadians across the country.

While traditional media still figures prominently in election advertising (witness the Conservatives’ recent front page takeover of some of the country’s major daily newspapers), social, with its enticing combination of highly targeted and affordable advertising, is where much of the activity is taking place this year.

“You don’t get the sense that there’s the same saturation [on TV] as there used to be,” said Eric Blais, president of Toronto ad agency Headspace Marketing, and a frequent commentator on election advertising for the CBC/Radio-Canada. “Social is almost replacing door knocking and rallies during the pandemic. It’s one way [candidates] can engage a little bit more with voters at a grassroots level. It just makes sense to go social even more.”

The three major parties have spent nearly $4.5 million across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger since mid-August alone according to Facebook’s Ad Library, which provides a searchable collection of ads across its various services.

“The political parties are not leveraging the platform in the same way,” said Ben Skinazi, SVP marketing and communications, of Montreal based programmatic advertising company Sharethrough. The Liberals have not only outspent the other major parties, they’ve also delivered a far greater number of different ad executions.

“I was checking on the numbers yesterday and they have spent, over the last 30 days, around $2 million from the official page of the Liberal Party, and $750,000 from the page of Justin Trudeau,” said Skinazi. “Whereas the Conservatives have spent $1 million from the Conservative official page, and around $200,000 from the O’Toole page.

“The other parties are spending less and delivering way less creative,” he said, with more than 5,000 ads in the ad library for the Liberal page compared to about 800 for both the NDP and Conservatives.

The Liberals have been particularly aggressive on the platform, spending $2.07 million on 5,429 ads over the past 30 days. That is nearly double the investment of both the Conservative Party of Canada ($1.23 million) and NDP ($1.15 million) combined.

All of the parties have been spending heavily on Facebook and its platforms in the final week before the election, however, with the Conservatives leading the way with $541,566 in investment over the past seven days, ahead of the NDP ($499,394) and the Liberals ($434,882).

The social activity has led to a glut of creative messaging, all of it targeting highly specific audiences. The Facebook ad library lists 9,187 ads for the country’s three major political parties in the past 90 days, with the Liberals alone accounting for 7,269.

But with few exceptions, the major parties’ ads in this election have felt as devoid of interest as the election itself, tired retreads of prior efforts with some horrible misfires (most notably the Conservatives’ Willy Wonka-themed ad) sprinkled in.

The Liberals’ 60-second spot “Relentless,” in which Trudeau extolled Canada’s virtues as a nation of people willing to work together for the greater good and urged Canadians to “keep moving forward. For everyone,” felt like an attempt to recapture the spirit of the party’s efforts in the 2015 and 2019 elections, albeit with what Blais characterized as a “strong dose of pandemic-related content.”

Achieving forward momentum together has been a hallmark of the Liberals’ approach in recent years, but Blais felt it didn’t live up to previous efforts. “It lacked the momentum, enthusiasm and youthful optimism that was so characteristic of the ‘sunny ways’ of 2015 and 2019,” he said.

In many ways, he added, the ad felt like a reflection of Trudeau’s lacklustre performance on the campaign trail, particularly in the campaign’s early days, when he was grappling with questions about his decision to call a snap election in the middle of a pandemic. The Conservatives have seized on that, with advertising portraying Trudeau as being selfish in his quest for a majority government.

The Conservative’s election advertising campaign, though, got off to an inauspicious start the day before the writ was dropped, with a much-criticized ad posted to its Twitter account featuring the Prime Minister’s face superimposed on the Veruca Salt character from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Set to the song “I Want It Now,” the ad asserted that the only reason Trudeau called the election was to secure a majority government. Twitter subsequently pulled the ad after receiving a copyright infringement complaint under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but not before it drew fire from people inside the party, who labelled it “dumb” and “embarrassing.”

Perhaps fortunately for the Conservatives, said Blais, the only people really paying attention at the time were pundits and hardcore political junkies. “I don’t think [that ad] did anything other than signal that the campaign was starting, and there’d be some negative advertising,” said Blais.

He described the Conservatives’ subsequent advertising as “sunny ways with shades of blue.” High-profile ads have shown party leader Erin O’Toole as smiling and energetic, depicting him as a fresh face for the party. “He was clearly coming in with very little baggage that the Liberals could exploit,” said Blais.

A mid-August ad showed O’Toole striding purposefully towards the camera, touting his military past and the party’s recovery plan. Other ads have been issues-related, such as improving childcare and making it accessible for everyone, and pledging his party’s support for parental leave.

“The Conservatives have run a pretty solid campaign from an advertising standpoint,” said Blais. “They’re getting a little negative now, but so are the Liberals.”

The Conservatives recently began hitting the Liberals with attack ads like “Something needs to change,” and “Trudeau put himself first.” The first addresses a favourite theme of the Conservatives in the rising cost of living under six years of a Liberal government, while the latter is another rebuke for calling a pandemic election, stating “He wasn’t thinking about what was good for you. He was only thinking about himself.”

The Liberals, meanwhile, have countered with an ad attacking the Conservatives on lax gun control laws, and another suggesting that O’Toole’s stated desire to “Take Canada back” would mean going back to the days of private for-profit health care, MPs pushing anti-abortion bills and denial and inaction on climate change.

“There’s always this conversation among the pundits about whether they should do American-style attack ads,” said Blais. “We’ve had nothing like the Americans in terms of the quantity and the tone of many of them, but it’s not new in Canada to have American-style attack ads,” he said.

As for the NDP, the CBC Poll Tracker currently shows the party with 20.1% support and a projected seat total of 38, up from just 24 in 2019. Jagmeet Singh’s party has not only adeptly used emerging platforms like TikTok to reach young, progressive voters, said Blais, but it has also been consistent with its messaging around making sure the country’s ultra-rich pay their share. “They win the award for consistency of messaging, no question.”

The NDP also introduced arguably the campaign’s most stylish ads in Quebec late last month. Doing away with the usual smiling politician walking towards the camera, the ads show Singh delivering his campaign promises against a series of colourful backdrops. In one he’s seen accosting a top-hatted rich guy in a bathtub of money, taking his glass of champagne out of his hand.

“I think people are looking at them and saying ‘Finally something that stands out that’s different and clever,'” said Blais, adding the NDP’s willingness to push the boundaries of traditional election advertising dates back to the days of its late leader, Jack Layton. “They take more chances with the style and the production values,” he said. “They certainly can’t be faulted for being like everybody else.”

However, it’s an approach seems to have had little impact in Quebec, where the party has consistently maintained 11% support over the course of the campaign. “It’s not like they triggered a movement or anything,” said Blais.

Ultimately, however, all of the parties must face one fundamental question: Just how effective are their ads at swaying voter opinion, especially when there are so many variables at play? Last year, a study analyzing 49 high-profile ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign found that political ads, regardless of tone or content, have a negligible effect on voter intention.

There’s an idea that a really good ad, or one delivered in just the right context to a targeted audience, can influence voters, but we found that political ads have consistently small persuasive effects across a range of characteristics,” said the study’s co-author Alexander Coppock, an assistant professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale.

“How do you prove that it’s the ad [that changed voter sentiment] when there was earned media that night or there was a debate the night before,” said Blais. “How do you actually dissect what is actually working and what is not?”

Despite their millions of dollars in advertising, only one of the parties will form Canada’s next government once the election results are tallied on Monday. Which means, as in so many cases when it comes to modern advertising, it’s Facebook that will emerge as the clear winner.

Chris Powell