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A brief history of political attack ads in Canada

dylan c. robertson

This week the Green Party launched an anti-attack ad criticizing other parties for their sensational advertisements. The meta attack ad aims to benefit from Canadians’ supposed distaste for ad hominem vilification and mudslinging.

It’s commonly believed that the first attack ad was the iconic 1964 “Daisy Girl” commericial, which threatens American voters with the prospect of nuclear war (another long-held American political tradition). Attack ads returned in 1988 with the George HW Bush “revolving door” spot suggesting a candidate’s prison reforms led to an increase in violent crime.

That same year featured Canada’s NAFTA election, in which the Liberal party ran ads suggesting Canadian sovereignty was at stake. You can read about it in a CBC interactive feature documenting 10 prominent attack ads from the English-speaking world.

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.” It’s a shame the same terms apply to today’s political discourse.

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: “Politics is an adversarial business. Kellogg’s doesn’t make their money by telling everybody General Foods are a great product.”

There’s little consensus on the effectiveness of attack ads. A 2007 psychological study suggests that although negative political ads make us want to turn away, we remember their negative messages. Some studies suggest negative and positive ads both have the same effectiveness.

Attack ads have made a lot of inroads south of the border. A study of the 2008 US presidential campaigns found that almost all McCain ads were “negative,” with many focusing on Obama’s personality over his politics. It’s gotten to the point where the hilarious “demon sheep” ad was actually used to sway voters, before it went viral and generated a spinoff.

In the past five years, attack ads have gained worldwide prominence.

An ad from the 2006 Mexican election compares one candidate with Hugo Chavez. Australia, a country with some really broken political discourse, saw the rise of attack ads in last year’s national election — including one monumentally stupid commercial.

Although such ads remain uncommon in UK elections, there’s been a recent increase in Europhobic ads — the word works for both definitions — attacking EU policy by airing stereotypes of continental neighbours.

TV ads in the 2006 São Paolo mayoral race speculated on a candidate’s supposed homosexuality. The tactic is eerily similar to a homophobic Tamil-language radio ad that aired in Toronto’s recent mayoral election.

The rollin’-in-dough Conservative party financed comparatively civil attack ads with funds allegedly arranged through the now infamous “in and out scandal” (that ironically focused on accountability and transparency). While it’s tempting to pin attack ads on one party or political persuasion, the Liberals, Bloc and NDP take part too.

These ads have repercussions on our democracy as a whole. In the 2008 election, the Conservatives made the daft choice of posting their pooping puffin ad online. The ad itself was intellectually (and otherwise) insulting. But more troubling: the Toronto Star ran a frontpage story about it.

Rick Mercer’s 2009 rant on the issue makes some pretty poignant points (and his parody ads are pretty funnytoo). Attacks ads are bad for democracy. Instead of helping us debate serious issues as a society, it creates poisons our discourse with character assassination, the politics of fear, and a culture of sound bites over substance.

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