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Can advertising be a weapon to fight disinformation in Canadian politics?

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Good advertising can make products go viral, turn slogans into popular sayings and transform a silly jingle into a tune you can’t get out of your head.

Advertising, in short, can infiltrate popular culture in ways no politician or even media outlet can ever hope to do.

So if politics is being infiltrated by other agents right now — disinformation and conspiracy theories, to name just two — can the tools of the advertising trade come to the rescue? Or, as fans of that old TV series might ask, can “mad men” save a political world gone mad?

Terry O’Reilly is probably Canada’s best-known ad guru. His radio shows and podcasts, “Age of Persuasion” and “Under the Influence,” have been explaining the power of advertising for years now. “How marketing ate our culture” is the subtitle of O’Reilly’s first book and also a tidy summary of what his popular radio shows teach with each episode.

But O’Reilly is worried that marketing may have met a culture it can’t eat — and that is the toxic mess of disinformation littering the public space and all of the accompanying conspiracy theories making people believe some truly outrageous things.

“Even after the advertising industry has spent a century learning how to change perceptions, this era of disinformation is not like anything anyone has ever seen before,” O’Reilly said in an email to me this week.

“Ever since the term ‘fake news’ has entered the zeitgeist, things have changed. And the ironic thing is that ‘fake news’ was created in order to spread disinformation,” O’Reilly said.

“In a nutshell, changing perceptions is the toughest task you can give to marketing.

“People hang on to perceptions — say, chunks of disinformation — like possessions, and they don’t give them up easily.”

Éric Blais, founder of Headspace Marketing, has similar reservations about advertising as a sword or shield against disinformation. Frankly, too many people believe advertising, like politics or the media, is disinformation itself.

“For advertising to be an antidote to the scourge of disinformation, it would first need to be trusted,” Blais said, citing a recent Nielsen global survey showing that only 59 per cent of Canadians showed complete or “somewhat” trust in advertising that reaches them.

Canadians have more trust, said Blais, in recommendations from people they know.

“That’s a big part of the problem, the echo chambers,” said Blais. “Canadians aren’t trusting of advertising, but they trust the Facebook friend who has ‘done his research.'”

Advertising has been coming to the rescue of politics for decades now. (Full disclosure: I wrote a whole book about a decade ago that dealt with this intersection of marketing and politics.)

When politics needed to come out of its ivory tower and learn mass appeal in the 20th century, it borrowed the tools of the ad trade. When politics encountered apathy and cynicism, it leaned on everything from branding to direct marketing to keep open its connections to the citizens.

So it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether advertising could be employed now to fix what’s ailing the political culture.

Dan Arnold worked for years as Justin Trudeau’s head of research and marketing in the Prime Minister’s Office. He’s back in the private sector now, working for the Pollara polling firm, but still looking closely at what cultural forces are having an impact on the political scene.

Arnold agrees that traditional political advertising isn’t going to work against disinformation, but some of the lessons learned in the ad business could be used to help put things back on a more fact-based track — at least for some voters.

First, said Arnold, it’s a question of figuring out where the disinformation is spreading. People who don’t get their news from watching political speeches or mainstream news are not going to be persuaded by fact checks through those channels.

Nor can bad information be corrected when it’s had a chance to grow, spread and become entrenched with the public. Arnold said Liberals never bothered all that much with advertising to hard-core Conservatives. Similarly, there are some people who are too far down the conspiracy rabbit hole to be turned around — the types who are sure that vaccines are microchip-delivery systems, say.

Still, Arnold said some creative, well-targeted advertising could be persuasive with people who are still just flirting with all of the disinformation flying around out there.

“You need to figure out who the people are that are buying the misinformation, you need to figure out what is the message to convince them … and the spokesperson is going to be different,” Arnold said. “It won’t be the government of Canada,” he added, smiling at the suggestion that Trudeau could speak to the anti-Trudeau folks or that the public health agency should be arguing with the anti-Vaxxers.

Blais, for his part, liked CNN’s own ad campaign against disinformation — the “facts first” series of spots aired in 2018. But would they be effective in reaching Fox News loyalists?

“It’s a bit like the Jan. 6 commission televised hearings,” Blais said. “It’s superbly produced television. It should be must-see TV for all Americans, but it’s either not watched or dismissed as biased by the very people it aims to convince.”

There is one effort underway to use advertising — or more correctly, an absence of advertising — to fight the spread of disinformation. A US group called Check My Ads has been trying, with some success, to steer ad money away from websites or other channels of disinformation. Its newest salvo is launched at none other than Fox News. “Fox News is trying to overthrow the government. You can stop them,” the organization says on the web page announcing its effort to choke off ad dollars from Fox.

O’Reilly, whose radio shows are generally upbeat, seemed uncharacteristically a little gloomy when I first approached him with the question of whether advertising could be a fix for what’s breaking politics.

He said it was a big question, and while advertising may not be up to the mammoth task of reversing disinformation, there may be some hope in using what the ad world has learned about “leveraging” perceptions.

“The key to changing perceptions is to leverage something that already resides in someone’s mind,” O’Reilly said. “You can’t try to change a perception by wiping someone’s memory banks — can’t be done — you have to leverage something that is already there.”

He offered the example of the “I Love New York” campaign of the 1980s, which started small, and focused on the one thing people did like about New York City at the time: the Broadway theater scene. “There was the leverage point,” O’Reilly said. “It’s pretty hard to visit Broadway without visiting New York.”

So that’s the challenge in fighting all of the disinformation out there, O’Reilly said. “It takes insight. It requires leveraging an existing perception. It’s a process, not an event.”

He admits he is worried about how the toxicity has become so entrenched in politics, not just here, but in the US too, and wonders whether this is how it felt during the so-called McCarthy era in the mid-20th century, when the US was seized with paranoia about communism.

“Maybe the McCarthy era felt like this, too, like the country had turned a corner and there was no turning back,” O’Reilly said. Ever the upbeat ad guy, though, O’Reilly didn’t want to leave the conversation on that dismal note. He added, “But that conspiracy thinking was eventually defeated.”

Hope may not spring eternal in politics, especially these days, but it’s not totally gone from the world of advertising.

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