Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Attacking the Attack Ads:: Green Party of Canada

The Green Party of Canada has launched a campaign to combat the political attack ads. I've seen a steady barrage of Conservative ads both in Montréal and Toronto, but nothing from the Liberal camp. It's argued that negative ads work, but social psychology would say, "it depends". Ask Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman out in California. I'd also distinguish an attack ad from a negative ad. While the former is a subset of the latter, in my book the former uses more emotional appeals using the ad hominem.

Political ad messages need to resonate with the target and be tailored to the type of personal relevance and domain knowledge of the intended audience. I would argue that fear marketing is a close kin to the attack ad. Fear appeals cue anxieties and aren't about making logical arguments. The negative Conservative ads are doing just that and are likely to resonate with older voters who don't like change—a demographic where the Conservatives are doing well. Negative ads can serve to provide bases for decisions in low information/low cognition contexts, where emotional appeals can be quite effective.

The Conservative ad barrage could be successful if it buries the Liberals in the opinion polls. This is what happened in the 2006 Gubernatorial race in California. That's not happening, as of yet. The barrage also puts the Liberals on the defensive, by defining their leader, Michael Ignatieff, negatively:

  • Untrustworthy and likely to broker a deal with the other parties
  • Not really a Canadian
  • Is a proponent of higher taxes

The frame being, "hey, this guy is dangerous....stay the course."

The problem is that attack ads and the vitriolic rhetoric is like antibiotics. They should be used sparingly. Viewers can become immune to them and a backlash can form.

Elizabeth May, the Green Party of Canada leader said:
"We do not have to accept a contaminated, vitriolic, rabidly partisan, unpleasant political culture...It is not part of democracy."
The Greens say the ads aren't a direct appeal to vote Green, but a pushback on the Conservative campaign. Interestingly, this could be a start of a larger debate on the fairness of the tactics of Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada. In other words, this can be the start of a backlash. Harper is still a relatively unpopular character and the opinion polls show that when you sift through the data, things are pretty unsettled. That said, given that Harper and the Conservatives don't have an unassailable record, I see a vulnerability here.

Twitterversion:: [video+blog] Greens launch campaign against attack ads, which could start a larger conversation on fairness in politics @Prof_K

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