Attack Ads Toxic to Democracy

Attack Ads Toxic to Democracy

As published in the Victoria Standard: June 5, 2019

Political attack ads have returned to Canada’s airwaves and social media as federal political parties seek to undermine their electoral opponents. In spite of its corrosive effect on public discourse, this ugly tactic has proven consistently successful, particularly for dominant parties who can afford to hire expert advisors.

Attack ads began in the United States with the introduction of television in the early 1950s and are now so common that both Canadian and American political parties feel obligated to employ them. These ads have historically featured the full range of offense, from Conservative mockery of Jean Chretien’s physical defects to George H.W. Bush’s tough-on-crime racism.

The normalization of negative political advertising reflects how successive Canadian governments and their political parties have embraced the ruthless competitive values and marketing strategies of the corporate world. In a market democracy, parties and their candidates are presented like consumer products complete with unique colors, logos and catchy slogans. Therefore, it is logical that public relations and advertising tactics are employed by political strategists to manipulate public perceptions at election time and beyond.

While some negative political ads contain a grain of truth, others are based on lies that often target people’s misconceptions. A recent Conservative ad attempts to link Justin Trudeau to Donald Trump by flashing Trudeau’s face followed by CNN-type graphics and the headline “Administration rocked by scandal”, words that formerly described a Trump fiasco. This TV news style attack ad also features commentary on the SNC Lavelin Scandal, conveniently ignoring the Harper government’s previous troubles with that company. Other Conservative Party ads portray Trudeau as unreliable or misrepresent the federal carbon tax as a burden in spite of the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s conclusion that this tax policy actually returns more money than Canadians pay in fees.

These ads are part of what Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann calls a "multi-million dollar" ad campaign designed to unseat the Liberal government and make Andrew Scheer Canada’s 24th Prime Minister. So far, the Liberal Party has not released any attack ads and party spokesperson Braeden Caley stated they will avoid personal attacks. However, the Liberals might be tempted to paint Andrew Scheer as a mini-Harper or even worse, a mini-Trump. Scheer’s campaign director Hamish Marshall maintains business ties to alt right Rebel Media which could invite comparisons to notorious Trump advisor Steve Bannon. As well, Scheer’s evangelical Christianity leaves him vulnerable on abortion and education issues.

Negative political advertising works for the same reasons that allow politicians to mislead and manipulate many voters with relative impunity: apathy, ignorance and a sense of futility about the political process. Of course, many people’s work, family and recreational activities may be such that even political research is a challenge. However, a healthy nation requires engaged and well-informed citizens who do much more than vote and pay taxes. This is especially true when politicians hire elite advisors specifically for their expertise in exploiting public indifference.

For example, the Conservative Party of Canada hired American advisor Arthur Finkelstein in 1987 to assist them with polling and negative political advertising while Brian Mulroney campaigned on the benefits of so-called free trade with the United States. Advisors like Finklestein believe that most North Americans approach politics superficially, favoring a candidate’s charm and good looks over their grasp of the issues.

These secretive gurus acknowledge the political value of public devotion to trivial entertainments like reality programs, professional sports and celebrity worship. They also exploit the isolation caused by people’s obsessive use of social media platforms since smart phones and similar devices encourage skimming rather than deep engagement with matters of public significance. On the other hand, technology can be a powerful tool in wise hands.

Although negative political advertising now seems a fixture of Canadian politics, its harmful effects can be reduced by personal research and direct involvement in political activities like advocacy journalism, community organizing, peaceful protest and even candidacy for elected office. While these activities are time-consuming and sometimes stressful, public affairs can be easily understood by anyone willing to spend some time and energy. Engaged and well-informed citizens are immune to the effects of attacks.