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Mon. October 14, 2019
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The success and failure of attack ads
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Smear campaigns and negative advertising have long been an unfortunate aspect of the North American election process. In Canada, the United States and Mexico these campaigns have existed in a variety of forms, with the most notorious being ‘attack ads’. There is a long list of oft cited example of this genre: the 1964 ‘Daisy Girl’ from the Johnson-Goldwater election; ‘Willie Horton’ in 1988 from Bush versus Dukakis; the Progressive Conservative ad which mocked Jean Chretien’s partial facial paralysis in 1993; ‘Swift Boat’ from the 2004 Kerry-W. Bush election; and the ‘Danger to Mexico’ campaign between current President Calderon and Obrador in 2006. The trend has continued unabated in 2008, with attack ads featuring heavily in both the Canadian and US elections. Most notably, this year’s elections have highlighted how name recognition can be directly linked to the success and failure of this practice.
There are two central factors which seem to have the largest impact on the success or failure of attack ads. The first is the larger political or moral issue which may pervade an election; issues like an imminent or current armed conflict, the death penalty or free trade. The second factor is the name recognition of the candidates, and it is this issue which has proven decisive in both Canadian and US election campaigns.

The Canadian Federal Election was held on October 14th, and saw the Conservative Party elected to a second straight minority government. The Liberal Party also resumed their place as the opposition party in the House of Commons, though they lost 16 seats to finish with 76. The Conservatives added to their total seats, totaling 143 of the 308 total. The Liberals also lost a significant portion of the popular vote in Canada; ultimately finishing in a weaker political position than they had in the previous government. The leader of the Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion, is certainly not the entire reason for this, but a big part of it.

In the weeks before the election, the Conservative Party ran a series of attack ads against Stéphane Dion, calling his leadership inexperience into question. Stéphane Dion did not have a great deal of name recognition in Canada at the time. He was largely an unknown to most when he won the leadership of the Liberal Party in December of 2006, and not too much had changed a month before the election. Attack ads generally target the swing or ‘undecided’ voters; and they do so by largely appealing on an emotional level. Dion did not enjoy wide support of the Liberal base electorate, nor was he inspiring the swing voters. In the weeks before the campaign, the Liberal Party began promoting the team approach; hoping that the strength of their front bench MP’s would be enough to sway voters. The fact that so many Canadians were uncertain of Dion’s character and credentials helped the Conservative attack ads to be successful. Dion did not have a recognized image, nor a particularly well defined set of campaign positions. In the post election analysis, Dion himself cited the ads as being one of the single largest factors in discrediting his character and proposals. Since he was such an unknown, the electorate simply did not know whom to believe. Without an established image, Dion had not developed any kind of name recognition. This lack of recognition allowed the attack ads to be successful, and ultimately hurt the Liberals in the election. South of the Canadian border in the US Obama-McCain election, the opposite is proving true.

Barack Obama has undeniably massive name recognition in the United States. His duration in the spotlight, charisma and oratory skills have all contributed to this. The Democratic Party Primary was a veritable marathon, keeping his name in the media and exposing his character to scrutiny. By the time the 2008 Presidential Election campaign began, the Barack Obama political machine was established, easily recognizable and had clear messages. Obama’s name clearly stands for something in the minds of the Democratic electorate and swing voters. This does not imply that these voters necessarily agree or disagree with what Barack Obama represents. Rather that he is clearly defined in the public eye. His name and political brand have become firmly entrenched. The Republican attack ad campaign had the hugely difficult task of breaking down this image. As it stands a week before the election, if polling figures are anything to go by, the attempts to weaken the foundation of the Obama campaign have been largely unsuccessful. Efforts to defame the Democratic candidate have failed because voters already associate Barack Obama with a distinct image and set of values that are not easily changed. As we saw, this scenario didn’t exist in the Canadian example.

Stéphane Dion and Barack Obama: two candidates occupying opposite positions on the name recognition spectrum. Both were confronted with the same style of attack from their main contenders in the election. Dion simply didn’t have the established image in the minds eye of the voters, and it proved to be a downfall under the scrutiny and criticism of attack ads. Obama has become very established, and his image has proved robust over the course of the campaign. The coming week will tell if it survives the ultimate electoral test on the 4th of November.

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