The Daily Exchange: How effective is campaign advertising?
The impact of advertising on this campaign is still unknown, but may well be significant.
The PCs are trying to accomplish several objectives with a relatively limited ad budget: introducing the leader, promoting their agenda and (by highlighting Mr. McGuinty’s record) making the case for change.
Striving for a distinct look and feel (an entirely legitimate objective), the provincial PCs have assembled an advertising group entirely different from the team that scripted the federal Conservatives’ election and pre-election ads. Truth be told, no two campaigns are alike.
The Liberals, on the other hand, are not running aggressive contrast ads against their opponents. (I’m not counting the new Horwath-equals-Hudak ad, which I don’t take seriously.)
The Liberals can afford to focus on positive ads because a third-party group, the so-called Working Families Coalition, is waging a sustained (albeit very misleading) attack on Mr. Hudak.
Under Ontario law, third-party advertising expenses must be recorded and reported, but total spending is unlimited.
Thus, while the PC Party’s central campaign is limited to spending roughly $6.5 million (74 cents times the number of electors; the preliminary list contains 8.76 million names), third parties can advertise against Mr. Hudak free of spending limits.
The Supreme Court says spending limits are based on the theory that wealth is the main obstacle to equal participation in election campaigns and the wealthy should be “prevented from controlling the electoral process to the detriment of others with less economic power.” (http://ow.ly/6xTJZ para. 62)
Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, this is the theory on which the law is based. How odd, therefore, that Ontario law permits corporate and union interests (in this particular case, unions) to spend unlimited wealth to influence the outcome of a provincial general election – especially when they spend to the detriment of a political party whose spending is capped.
The supposed principle is equal participation, but wealthy interest groups are clearly more equal than grassroots political parties.
During the 2007 general election campaign the Working Families Coalition spent $1 million on advertising (http://ow.ly/6xST9). The frequency with which their commercials appear suggests a much heavier buy this time.
In the face of potentially unlimited anti-PC advertising, it hardly seems fair that the PC Party’s ability to defend itself is curtailed by law.
- Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper
Response from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
Campaign advertisements have a demonstrable effect on the electorate. Political parties, pundits, academics, back room organizers, and yes, interest groups, are well aware of the effect advertisements can have on voters.
What is important is disclosure of who is paying for them. And disclosure is happening: whether it by the Elementary Teachers Federation, the Working Families Coalition, the business that owns the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit, or “People for a Better Ontario” (the conservative version of the Working Families Coalition which seems to have been a flop).
So let me bring up what I think is a more important debate than who is paying for what advertisements.
Eight years ago Ontarians could not count on their health care system.
The previous government closed 28 hospitals, the NDP’s wrongheaded decision to cut medical school spaces in the early 1990’s created a crisis with doctor shortages, emergency rooms on Toronto’s university row had to shut their doors to patients, and local decision making took a backseat to dangerous health care consolidation decisions.
Today, the Premier was at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario taking about newborn screening which now covers 28 rare disorders – up from two. He reminded voters in Eastern Ontario that under the previous government the hospital’s heart surgery unit closed – making children who needed surgery have to make the dangerous trip to Toronto. (A perfect example of the consolidation decisions I mentioned above).
Health care continues to be a top three issue on the minds of voters. Yet it has barely been discussed in this campaign.
At a time where Conservative leadership hopefuls in Alberta are talking about infusion of private delivery and how the Federal Health Accord needs to be renegotiated, Ontarians need to have a frank discussion about the future of their health care system. The Ontario Liberal party is the only party that has presented a health care plan that will recognize that costs need to be managed, but not at the expense of life saving services.
This debate is important for all Ontarians. We have an aging population, skyrocketing costs, and a generation we now call the “sandwich generation” who are caring for their parents and their own children. We need to talk about health care and how we are going to sustain the system.
(I will continue this discussion mid-week).
Response from Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
Guy’s question was about television advertising and fairness in elections, so I’m going to give him a straight answer.
I am troubled by the direction Ontario politics is headed. I think it is too self-serving. I think it is too negative. And I think everyone involved needs to take a good hard look at what they’re doing, and ask themselves if we really want to continue down this road. Because if that’s where we’re headed, we’re not going to like where we end up.
I think political parties are at their best when they give voters something to vote for, not just something to vote against.
I’ve heard from the political ad gurus who say negative advertising is good, that it’s healthy for democracy, and by golly it’s something that anyone who aspires to higher office absolutely needs to do.
It’s a seductive argument. At one point, I saw merit in the position. Win at all costs is a good thing, right?
But over time, as I’ve stepped away from the political game, and become a parent, and faced up to the fact that I need to explain my actions to my kids, I have concluded that I was wrong to believe negative campaigning is a positive thing.
At the outset of this campaign, I spoke about being hopeful that all three leaders and all three parties would recommit to some civility in politics.
How have the parties done? It’s been a mixed bag from the Liberals and the PCs.
On McGuinty: He has put out some positive TV ads squarely focused on what he’s done as premier. At the same time, he’s put out negative TV ads attacking Hudak. He is avoiding debates. He has given free rein to a war room that’s doing everything but raising the level of debate. Heck, he’s even attacking the record of the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Go figure.
On Hudak: He has put out some positive TV ads of his own, focused on introducing himself to voters. He has also agreed to take part in the Northern Ontario debate. But like McGuinty, he’s flooding the airwaves with name-calling attack ads. His early-campaign attacks on new Canadians were similarly negative and divisive.
Of the three party leaders, only Andrea Horwath is doing things differently. She is running a positive campaign. She is speaking about her plans to create new jobs and make life more affordable for Ontarians. She is calling for more debates. She is meeting with real voters. And her TV ads? They’re positive. All of them. That includes her latest “Shoes” ad, which is quite funny and well worth watching.
Back to Guy’s original question. Should we review election advertising rules after this campaign, to see if we can do things better? Absolutely we should.
But there’s something more important than that they everyone involved needs to do:
Ask yourself if you can justify your behaviour to your children and grandchildren. Ask yourself if they would get sent to the principal’s office for doing the kind of things you’re doing. And if you don’t like the answers, change your ways and do better.