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Seeing more attack ads this election campaign? You’re not alone

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If the Ontario election has struck you as a rather dreary exercise — neither hope nor change in the air — it may not be your imagination.

Advertising campaigns often set the tone for elections and one expert in political communication says Ontarians have been subject to a sustained exercise in negativity in the weeks leading up to election day 2022.

Tim Abray of Queen’s University, who’s just finishing his doctoral dissertation on the effects of negative advertising, has been paying close attention to what all of the Ontario parties have been putting in the political shop window during this campaign.

I ask him whether it’s been one of Ontario’s more negative elections.

“In terms of volume, yes, absolutely. In terms of intensity, I would say no,” Abray says, explaining that while the ads haven’t been very sunny, they haven’t been very vicious either — which is a relief. “There’s not been a lot of nasty in this campaign. But there’s been a very sustained level of animosity.”

No real creative trails have been blazed either, says Abray, noting that some of the parties’ ad offerings seem like throwbacks to negative ads of yore.

The New Democrats, for instance, have been hammering away pretty heavily at Doug Ford, arguing that he’s only in politics to help his friends. (Liberals have taken up this refrain as well.) To Abray, this line of attack is reminiscent of all the old federal Conservative ads against former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatiev and “he didn’t come back for you.”

Conservatives and the NDP, meanwhile, have put out ads that not so subtly take a poke at Steven Del Duca’s appearance. “Not this guy,” says an NDP ad, the words stamped over an unflattering photo of the Ontario Liberal leader.

Again, Abray sees a parallel from the historical archives — notably, the ads against Jean Chrétien in 1993, when Conservatives put his face up on the screen and asked whether this was a prime minister. (The ad was pulled after an outcry during that campaign.)

Political professionals like to draw distinctions between negative ads, at least in terms of fairness. “Contrast ads,” they say, can be negative, but empirically factual, comparing a record on political promises versus what was delivered. “Attack ads,” however, fall into a murkier zone, raising vague questions about values ​​or fitness for office.

“Pure attack ads are simply suggestive,” says Abray. “You know, they’re the lurking monster in the closet.”

Abray’s research, to be released in a book later this year or early next, has produced evidence that negative ads don’t work. Political strategists like them because they’re supposed to generate interest in a campaign, but they’re not particularly effective at persuasion, Abray found.

It’s also not your imagination if you are convinced you’re seeing more negative ads either, he says. Where once parties used them only at the end days of campaigns, they’re now more willing to saturate the airwaves with negativity throughout.

It’s too bad Abray’s book didn’t come out before this Ontario election, because it might have prodded the parties to be a little more upbeat or creative.

When it comes to creativity, Abray credits the NDP with a somewhat novel ad entry — called “Ping Pong,” featuring a desultory game played back and forth between the red and the blue teams. The idea is that Ontario politics is uninspiring as long as it’s a power trading game between Liberals and Conservatives. The ad ends with a shower of orange ping pong balls and a smiling Andrea Horwath saying “it’s your turn to win.”

Horwath appears to have voiced most of the NDP ads in this campaign and that, too, is unusual, says Abray.

He is intrigued by ads like this, that are both negative and positive. Conservatives have been employing the same technique, says Abray, lumping together ads that attack the other parties and then get sunnier, with Ford’s “Get it Done” messages. He says he will be curious to see how this hybrid works.

I asked Abray why he believed this Ontario election would be remembered for what he called the “sustained animosity.” Is it the legacy of the pandemic?

He believes it’s a combination of factors — the refusal of Ford and his candidates to get into policy debates or even media scrums. In that vacuum, the main action has been the scuffling between the Liberals and New Democrats, each vying to be Ford’s “real” enemy.

The real verdict on the tone of the ad campaign may come when we see the turnout numbers after the votes are counted on Thursday. Assuming the political pros’ old rules still apply, all the negativity should have drummed up interest, and thus, turnout.

Or it could be that Abray’s research is correct, and the animosity has left Ontarians looking for something more positive.

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