ANALYSIS: New negative ads from the Liberals an admission it’s a tight race

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The Liberal Party of Canada unleashed a trio of television ads Saturday attacking Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives using the trifecta of oft-tried Liberal wedge issues: abortion, gun control and two-tier health care.

“Canadians deserve to know where their party leaders stand,” the party said in a press release. “These new ads show Erin O’Toole, in his own words, detailing how he would ‘take Canada back.’ ”

The ads, all in English, are each 30-second spots titled, “The Record,” “In His Own Words,” and “Take Back Canada.”

The Conservatives responded within hours, releasing their own pair of 30-second ads, “Justin Says” and another untitled one which debuted on Twitter and, in a press release, the party said they were a response to the “cynical, American-style[Liberal]  attack ads, designed to create fear and division among Canadians.”
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The Liberal ads, debuting just ahead of the crucial English-language leaders’ debate on Thursday, are a sure sign that internal Liberal polls are showing what the public polls are showing: the Conservatives are ahead and might even win government. And the Conservative response is an affirmation of the same: In a close race, negative or ‘contrast’ ads can often make the difference.

But while the Liberals started to throw some punches at their chief opponent on Saturday, the Conservatives have been throwing punches at the Liberals for some time now, including the widely panned “Willy Wonka” ad the party was forced to withdraw for copyright reasons.

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On Friday, the Conservatives published a new negative spot that played on concerns many Canadian voters have that this election is an unnecessary one.

Both the Conservative and Liberal ads out this weekend try to turn the words of their opponents against them, a tried-and-true political marketing tactic that can often be effective.

Political marketing types prefer to call these kinds of ads “contrast ads,” the idea being that the ads attempt to show voters a contrast between their candidate and the opponent.

The NDP, for example, released a trio of French-language ads more than a week ago that would be classic examples of the ‘contrast ad’ genre in that they feature the NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, describing in 15-second bursts the differences between his party’s approach on a given issue, say climate change, and the approach by his opponent.

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But the ads released this weekend by the Liberals and Conservatives are a step closer to true ‘negative’ or ‘attack ads’ in that they try to provoke disgust or anger about their opponent. They both use editing techniques that are often as important for what they omit as what they include and both feature dramatic music underneath the ad that enhances the emotional effect the advertiser is trying to create.

The Liberal attack ads out this weekend are also much tougher and hard-hitting than a couple of Facebook ads the party ran against Andrew Scheer in 2019 or the only negative ad the Liberals ran against Stephen Harper in 2015.

Attack ads, though, can sometimes backfire, particularly if a voter perceives them to be unfair or over-the-top.

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In 1993, for example, then Liberal Leader Jean Chretien benefitted from significant sympathy from voters who thought that Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives were unfairly making fun of the way Chretien speaks because of his Bell’s Palsy.

Then in 2006, the Paul Martin Liberals withdrew an over-the-top attack ad on Conservative Stephen Harper who, the ad warned, would allow “Soldiers in Our Streets” — an ad many uniformed Canadians and those who support uniformed Canadians found offensive. The Liberals withdrew that ad almost as soon as it was debuted.

But another ad in the same series, suggesting a Harper government would act to restrict abortion services, was, in fact, effective.

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Both Liberal and Conservative partisans would say after the campaign that they could trace a drop in Harper’s support among women and a concurrent rise in support by women for Martin stemming from that ad. Some involved in that 2006 campaign said that negative ad may, in fact, have been responsible for preventing Harper from winning a majority in the 2006 election.

The Trudeau Liberals of 2021 will almost certainly be hoping for the same thing with the current set of attack ads with two weeks to go until election day. The Liberals need to stall Conservative momentum in the polls and, they hope, put O’Toole on his heels in the debates this week.

David Akin is the chief political correspondent for Global News. 

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