What is Negative Advertising?

Before I begin, I should mention a couple of things. My first post on the Campaign Tales website is now up. It’s a profile of the newly-created Kitchener-Conestoga riding, which I think could be one of the more interesting races of this province because there’s no incumbent candidate, and the five parties contesting the election have brought forward what is perhaps the youngest and freshest (least experienced) slate of candidates in the province.

I tried to get a quote from a local political science professor or two about how experience, or the lack thereof, affects candidates’ chances. Do we as voters shy away from somebody in their early twenties and focus on somebody who has been around, either in politics or in the job market, longer? Should we? What are the criteria you look for when it comes to selecting your local representative? Does age trump youth, or does party trump all? If you have an opinion on this, you are welcome to click over to the post and make a comment over there. I look forward to your response.

In other news, I received an e-mail from the consultant group Hill and Knowlton, who have put together an election prediction program on their website. Using their computer model, you can see how various party splits or swings of popular vote might translate into seats for the various parties. You can see the results for the whole province, or specific regions. It’s a fun device to play with, though the results must be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, these guys brought out a similar tool for the 2006 federal election, and it failed to predict under any circumstances, the Conservatives’ ten seats in Quebec.

Feed in the numbers for the most recent poll and it suggests a slightly reduced Liberal majority of 64 seats, compared to the Conservatives’ 33 and the NDP’s 10. Take that however you will.

And now for our feature presentation.

John O'Toole

Negative advertising. Voters hate it, but campaigners believe it works (I disagree). It seems that you can’t have an election without various politicians shouting lies and innuendo at each other, discrediting their opponents and themselves in equal measure. And as the Ontario election begins with the various parties polling closer together, we’re constantly warned that this campaign could be bitter.

Intriguingly, however, more and more politicians are promising not to engage in a negative campaign, supposedly respecting the voters’ wishes and secretly hoping to win the voters’ respect. This has produced an wrinkle in the whole negative campaigning debate: now when one politician makes such promise, his opponents comb through all the politician’s rhetoric and party advertising to find any miscue, any slip-up, to enable them to claim that the politician is engaging in a negative campaign against his own assurances to the contrary. Thus their opponent has become that most negative thing among politicians: a promise breaker.

In the Ontario election, the Liberals and the Conservatives are already trading similar barbs. For example, consider this post made last month by Warren Kinsella (I pick him because he’s convenient; he is by no means alone):

August 28, 2007 - Dancing on the head of an attack pin, as it were, a couple of Tories are seeking to exonerate PROMISE BREAKER¬© John Tory for launching yesterday what even the conservative media are calling “negative” advertising.


Bottom line: he said he wouldn’t do what he is now doing. Ipso facto, PROMISE BREAKER¬©.

  • “Just because we know the next election will be in October does not give anyone a license to begin year-round negative campaigning, though, increasingly, the McGuinty government seems inclined to do just that.”
    (John Tory Op-ed, Kingston Whig-Standard, Monday, January 8, 2007)


  • “I will not be engaging in personal attacks, I will not be personalizing, I have no interest in doing that - I’m going to try to raise the bar, in terms of the behaviour in politics and the way people conduct themselves in politics.”
    (The Toronto Star, February 2, 2005)


I should point out that the final snip section (for brevity sake) includes five quotes from John Tory, supposedly exacerbating his sin of saying one thing and doing another. Reading these quotes, I would suggest that two of them are not talking about electoral campaigns but rather the civility of politicians in the legislature — a related issue, to be sure, but not what people tend to talk about when they complain about negative campaigns. This illustrates what I said about a promise to avoid negative campaigns becoming fodder for negative campaigns itself. The fact that over half of the quotes selected don’t actually refer to the apparent hypocrisy in question is itself an example of negative campaigning.

And Kinsella doesn’t link to the negative advertising that he says makes Tory a “promise breaker”. Instead, he refers to a single column in the Toronto Sun which says “The John Tory Conservatives took to the radio airwaves yesterday with a series of negative ads tackling the record of the Dalton McGuinty government…”

And that’s it. No link to or description of the ads themselves, just a single comment by a single columnist in a single newspaper saying that the ads Tory was launching were “negative” (Ian Urquhart of the Star does say something similar, but Kinsella doesn’t mention him). But then an accurate assessment respecting the context of the words being written would prove a rather unwieldy and undestructive grenade to lob over the fence, wouldn’t it?

However, the issue of this post lies more in the Toronto Sun columnist’s comment than Warren’s manipulation of the point. The Sun report (unavailable online; there is a link here, but only if you fork over $12 — highway robbery) might call the ads negative, but if all the ads do is “tackl(e) the record of the McGuinty government”, then the columnist needs a bit of a primer on what constitutes negative advertising.

It has to be asked: do the new Tory ads make fun of some physical impediment of McGuinty, like some undisclosed facial paralysis? Do the ads call McGuinty soft on pedophelia? Do the ads accuse the Liberal Party of outright criminal wrongdoing? Do the ads call McGuinty a reptilian kitten eater from another planet?

I would suspect not. If I’d had to hazard a guess, I would suspect that the Tory ads (and Hampton’s) call McGuinty a “promise breaker” (why else would Kinsella give the term such prominence unless it was something he wanted to throw back in Tory’s face?). At worst, they possibly called McGuinty a liar (or, possibly, “deceptive”). If it was the latter, that would be unfortunate. If it was the former, however, then that’s fair game, and if McGuinty’s campaign honestly feels that being called a “promise breaker” is negative advertising, they need to get out of the hot kitchen.

The problem with negative advertising is that it seeks to destroy the character of an opponent without taking the time to honestly engage the opponent’s policies. This is usually done with an attack that has no substance behind it, that appeals to emotion rather than fact. Any number of loaded words get hurled inside and outside the blogosphere whose only purpose is to hurt rather than engage. Fascist, commie, even liberal, get thrown around as a convenient way to badmouth an opponent in shorthand, because it’s harder to actually go after a platform or record, and to prove that your own platform or record is better. To take the honest route means engaging in an honest argument, thus running the risk of a debate that results in something other than our complete victory.

But if you have a record that can be criticized, you should expect criticism. Dalton McGuinty stood before cameras and said “I will not raise your taxes, but I will not lower them either.” He took part in signing a pledge brought forward by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation to not raise taxes. He then instituted a $900/year premium in order to maintain and improve our health care services.

Doing this does not make him a liar. To be a liar is to have malicious intent; to know that what you said wasn’t true the moment you said it. We have no proof that this was the case (though there were suggestions at the time that the finances were worse than what Eves was painting them to be). But though it’s too much to call McGuinty a liar, he still promised one thing and did another. And that makes him a promise breaker.

To say so is not negative. The facts make this interpretation entirely reasonable, and McGuinty has a decent counter-attack. He can argue that the promise had to be broken due to the unannounced $5.6 billion deficit left behind by the Eves government. He could argue that he had to choose between keeping taxes stable and improving health care — another key promise he made — and in choosing to keep one promise he had to break a less important one. From that, the chips fall where they may, and the voters are left to decide whether the explanation is sufficient. Politicians might not like the verdict, but it’s not the opponents’ fault if the voters decide to condemn one side on this basis.

To run an advertisement displaying an unflattering image of Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis dubbed with a line from a (supposed) voter saying “I, personally, would be embarrassed,” is unquestionably negative. To issue a press release denouncing the Liberals and New Democrats’ caution over blanket anti-child-paedophilia legislation that could render parents’ innocent baby bathing pictures illegal and saying that the Liberals and the New Democrats are “soft on child paedophiles” is a vicious slander and very negative. To take lines from a priest’s sermon about Christian forgiveness or an author’s work of fiction about the problem of teenage prostitution in Thailand and say that the candidates support paedophilia is nearly actionable. To liken those who question the war on Iraq as being “objectively pro Saddam” traitors is shameful. These attacks are not grounded in anything factual; they are intended only to destroy opponents at a personal rather than political level, and they are the sort of campaign tactics that turn voters off the politicians who engage in them. This is the negative advertising that I firmly believe does not work.

But pulling up McGuinty’s political record over the past four years and noting that he has broken several promises is not negative advertising. Questioning Tory’s ability to enact his spending platform, and cut taxes, and find $2.6 billion in unspecified “efficiencies” in public spending, is not negative advertising. It’s a fine line between constructive and destructive criticism, but I would have to say that the record McGuinty is running on, and the fiscal soundness of Tory’s campaign platform are both fair game.

The campaign so far has been heated, but it hasn’t gone negative, yet — except for the accusations that the other side is engaging in a negative campaign. I say: long may this continue. But if the various campaigns hope to duck scrutiny of their records and platforms under the cry of “negative advertising”, they will have the desired effect: voters will be turned off. But the target of the voters’ ire might surprise the politicians who make the accusation.

A Contrary Opinion

  • Ian Urquhart at the Star also calls Tory’s advertising campaign negative. I respectfully disagree. The use of the word “deception” is borderline, but again the attacks are focused on McGuinty’s record and platform, and that’s what politicians should be doing in any campaign.
blog comments powered by Disqus