An attack on attack ads

Well, we are almost finished the second week of campaigning for the federal election and it's still about posturing with not much substance.

Sure, parties are outlining their platforms but so far timely deliverable promises are far and few between. Many of the plans such as universal daycare and the cap and trade system are on re-run for Canada. They offer little, if any, relief for the average worker looking about at the end of the day for something to hold on to that will make voting meaningful.

It doesn't help that attack ads are once again on display with many political watchers predicting that this is likely to be the nastiest campaign in history.

I was struck the other day by an analogy asking how people would react if a co-worker took out national ads that questioned a colleague's values, ethics and patriotism with a goal of getting someone fired. No one would put up with that and yet every day we are now asked to pay attention to this type of advertising.

Voters are told to be afraid as part of the campaigns to win hearts and minds. It seems counterintuitive and yet shockingly it works.

In the last election an Angus Reid poll found that Conservative "roll-the-dice ads" on then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and his green tax shift plan might have persuaded 11 per cent of Canadians not to vote at all.

In an ironic twist some of those who stayed home and didn't vote were Conservative voters, but more than a million of those who didn't go to the polls were Liberals and many would argue that made all the difference.

Therein lies the crux of this type of negative campaign - for it is not crafted to get people out to the polls but instead it's all about keeping people away from the voting booth.

That savvy people would rather turn the channel than listen to negative ads seems to be irrelevant.

Warren Kinsella, long time Liberal strategist and someone who has written on the subject said recently: "When you poll people... about so called negative advertising they will always say they dislike like it and they will always say they are not motivated by it. But the data shows that they in fact do pay attention to it, they remember it, they are motivated by it perhaps more than any other type of political advertising, so that is why I liken it to a car crash, no one likes a car crash but when you are on the highway you always slow down and take a look."

Conservative Senator Doug Finley, a "genius of political attack ads," was interviewed by the  Globe and Mail last month. Responding to those who believe negative ads turn off voters, his response was: "Politics is an adversarial business. Kellogg's doesn't make their money by telling everybody General Foods are a great product."

It is right in a democracy to criticize an official's public record but when the assassination is on character it crosses the line.

Then there is the little question of truthfulness in a political ad, for in campaign advertising there are no legislated standards as the industry's trade association, Advertising Standards Canada, excludes political advertising from its code. So it's really up to the voter to find out whether the ad is true or not.

Politics is adversarial by nature and it is by definition passionate as well.

But does that really mean we have to mislead voters or attack people's character or even their families to get our own way?

Some are fighting back. A Facebook site called A Canadian Election Without Attack Ads has started up - though it has few followers.

And the Green Party launched its "Change the Channel on Attack Ads" campaign.

But these things are unlikely to have any real impact - it looks like negative ads are here to stay.

One of the few times such an ad failed was when a 1993  Kim Campbell ad mocked Jean Chretien's facial Bell's palsy. Political figures  decried the ad as "political desperation" and "totally inappropriate and in poor taste."

These types of ads take the focus away from the social issues at hand and poison the types of debates we should be having around the kitchen table, in our offices, and with our political representatives.

It can't be any fun either trying to win voters locally when the visuals can be so negative.

We still have two more elections to get through - provincial and municipal. Let's hope the townhall meetings, public meet-and-greet sessions and the ads in these focus on legitimate criticism of policies and actions or the positive change our political representatives have worked hard to achieve.

My fingers are crossed.



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