BC Election Proves Efficacy of Attack Ads

As a marketing agency, we viewed the election last week as both voters, interested in the future of our province, and as media specialists, analyzing the campaigns from a marketers point of view.

Which is why, from a purely marketing perspective, the NDP’s underwhelming results in last week’s provincial election revealed a campaign that failed to utilize negative advertising.

While attack ads have been in use in American politics since the 1960’s (see: Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad), Canadians have traditionally deliberately avoided using negative ads until recently, partially because of the public backlash against the Progressive Conservative party’s “Face” ad. However, in recent years, negative advertisements are becoming increasingly common in Canada across all party lines.

Despite their increased popularity, Mr. Dix stated that he would not engage in attack ads directed at Premier Clarke, a notion that he steadfastly held on to even as his once-impressive lead in the polls dwindled in the weeks preceding the election. Mr. Dix’s strategists likely felt that the Premier’s low approval rating (at one point 25%, good for the lowest in Canada) and the public backlash against the BC Liberal Party’s HST controversy would be enough to carry the NDP to victory.

In short, simply being the Other option would ride them to victory. However, not engaging in attack ads created two unintended results for the NDP:

Firstly, it let Premier Clarke set the narrative. The Liberal Party’s attack ads convinced independents and soft liberals that the NDP would kill job growth. For their part, the NDP failed to retaliate, which in turn, put them on the defensive. Premier Clarke could be constantly seen sporting a hard hat, thereby lending symbolic support to labourers and as the “pro jobs” party.

Conversely, as a party historically associated with social welfare, education and to a lesser degree, environmentalism, the NDP needed to create a narrative that juxtaposed their jobs platform against a “stagnant” Liberal economy. Further, refusing to create attack ads essentially gave the Liberal Party carte blanche on their messaging.

With no party to seriously counter their claims, Premier Clarke was able to go all-in on her party’s economic promises while framing the NDP as a danger to the province’s economy. Premier Clarke was able to create an uncertainty around the NDP, which Mr. Dix did not adequately address and counter against.

Secondly, by failing to frame themselves properly, the NDP was unable to create an effective Call To Action. Ignoring the ethics involved, running attack ads creates an emotional–almost primal– response. Attack ads put the onus on the voter to prevent a calamity (e.g. jobs, health, crime, education, environment, and in the case of US ads, terrorism).

Attack ads create a persuasive call to action by catering to voters emotions, rather than their intellect. Mr. Dix’s campaign failed to create simple calls to action, thereby requiring voters to do their own research on the NDP’s platform. In a province known for voter apathy, this is a death wish.

In the final days, with their lead all-but-gone, the NDP put together some haphazard ads, attacking the Liberal’s track record. However, the ads lacked any punch and by then, after months of attack ads, the Liberal Party’s message was well engrained.

Negative political advertising deserves to be critiqued and, in an ideal political environment, curtailed. However, with 12 years of a Liberal government, the NDP had an impressive war chest of sound bites and events to create attack ads from. While attack ads have long been eschewed in Canadian politics, their current use means that any party not willing to employ them will be handicapping their campaign and their chances of victory.