Attack Ads

In recent elections (and in between elections) the number of attack ads shown in Canadian media has increased. Many people decry their existence and claim that they hurt the Canadian election process.

Why then are they used? Unfortunately, because they work.

Attack ads work by deliberately insulting the other parties/leaders and by misrepresenting comments to imply and insinuate unflattering interpretations of the political message. Thus a negative point of view is presented to the voter.

This negative effect is the more obvious mechanism used by attack ads, but there is a second mechanism as well. This second method is that negative ads serve to keep potential voters home on election day. We have all heard friends and colleagues say that “there is no point in voting they are all the same _____ (crooks/cons/liars etc)”. In January 2006, 64.7% of the registered voters in Canada casted ballots, 2.5 years later in October 2008 the number of votes cast dropped to 58.8% of registered voters. Here in Kitchener Centre despite a highly educated work force the voter turnout was below the national average at 57%. By not going to the polls, voters do not to communicate to the government that they want a change – a government is still elected. It actually sends a message to the elected officials that they used the most effective strategy to get elected. Most Canadians do not realize that political ads do not need to adhere to The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards

“While the Code applies to all Canadian advertising for goods and services by corporations and other entities, political advertising and election advertising are special categories that are excluded from the application of the Code.”

Viewer complaints about political and election ads are not reviewed by Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) in order not to restrict freedom of expression. It is up to the Canadian electorate to protest the ads or to refuse to elect politicians that use these tactics. The most the ASC can do to address the matter is to ask Canadian politicians to voluntarily adhere to its code.

A key feature of Canadian politics is the ability for all parties to participate in a substantive debate of relevant issues. Defenders of attack ads claim that this type of advertising stimulates debate. But, one can question if attack ads do stimulate a substantive debate. Attack ads are an example of argumentum ad hominem (L. argument directed at the man), the ads attack the person rather than the substance of the issue. It is difficult to have a substantive debate when your opponent is attacking your person rather than challenging your policies.

Attack ads, by their sheer numbers and tendency to invoke retaliation, serve to increase advertising expenditures. This directly limits the ability of parties with limited resources to participate in the debate. They do not further the discussion of policy and consequently, harm Canada’s democracy. We have all heard political parties in Canada use the phrase “They did it first” meaning another party ran an attack ad against them, so they are responding in kind. What happened to raising the bar, becoming a better politician, improving the atmosphere of the discussion? Do we really want to use school yard tactics? Attack ads are contributing to the decline in the Canadian political climate.

Attack ads are subject to some limitations. Televised attack ads are expensive, and there are limits to how much money that parties can spend during the writ(election period.) However, there is no limit to spending on advertising between elections. Many countries ban the use of television advertising for political parties, including the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland, Chile, Sweden, and Ireland.

The most effective method to combat attack ads is to stay engaged in the political process. If you do not like attack ads, do not vote for parties that use them. The Green Party has expressed an opinion that Canada should ban the use of television for political advertising before and during the writ periods. “I don't see why every party in Canada would not agree to this proposal - after all, it would be an excellent chance to speak about what really matters, policy and governance,” said Deputy Green Leader Adriane Carr.