Truthiness in Advertising:
Political attack ads are flooding the airwaves. Negative ads are one thing, but are voters taken in by downright dishonesty?
By Susanna Kelley
"Negative ads work; stupid ads don't."
- Rick Mercer
Truth is the first casualty of war, they say. It's certainly proving to be the first casualty of the political advertising war in the lead up to September's provincial election.
Playing fast and loose with the truth is nothing new in politics, especially during a campaign. But just because it's become common in Canada, and just because it works, doesn't mean the average person likes it or even finds it acceptable.
There is a plethora of downright misleading statements being put out there right now.
Negative ads have been around for some time. They were used heavily during the 1995 provincial election.
A group surrounding Progressive Conservative leader Mike Harris, the so-called "Whiz Kids," had spent time learning the ropes in the U.S., at workshops run by Campaigns and Elections. They solicited the help of U.S. Republican ad guru Mike Murphy. They put what they learned to work in the 1995 campaign.
The Tory ads in those days were cheesy more than negative. One featured a weather vane, which constantly changed direction, likening it to Liberal flip-flops.
Well before the next election, however, the Tories were going full-force with negative ads. The most noteworthy made the Liberal leader look weak, and declared "Dalton McGuinty - he's just not up for the job." The early ads defined McGuinty before he could define himself. Federal Tories, influenced by many PC's in their numbers who had flocked to Ottawa from Ontario, picked up the strategy, running negative ads between elections about both Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatief. Both times the ads were very effective.
But conversely, in 2003, the provincial Liberals kept it clean: in one of the most effective political ads ever, McGuinty said, "I won't raise your taxes, but I won't lower them either ... Take the high road." A population exhausted by eight years of a confrontational Mike Harris government decided to, indeed, "take the high road" and elect McGuinty.
But this election, critics say the Liberals are getting as down and dirty as the Tories, and perhaps even more so.
Take this ad for example:
A double-check all the sources listed in the ad reveals some seriously misleading statements.
Let's just parse it a bit.
The Liberals call this ad "Catastrophic Cutbacks," inferring that's what we're going to get with Hudak. The ad states, "here's what people are saying" about Tim Hudak's platform.
The ad quotes the Toronto Star, clearly indicating that's the Star's analysis of the platform.
In fact, the story they quote, a column from Martin Regg Cohn, says no such thing.
What Cohn does say, in fact, is that this is what the Liberals are saying about Hudak's platform.
Ditto for the next line, "hospitals, education, electricity shortages." It's Cohn quoting the Liberals themselves, who are warning that's what will happen if Hudak is elected.
"Harris history is about to repeat itself" is a misquote - the actual quote, again from the another Cohn column, is "History is about the repeat itself."
"Financial fiction" is sourced to the Hamilton Spectator, as if this is what the Spec was saying about the platform.
Well, yes it appeared there. But it was a republication of - wait for it - the same Martin Regg Cohn column.
In fact, all the quotes are taken from either the Liberals themselves or columnists from only three newspapers, not five; and from those newspapers, four writers in total - just on nine different dates.
Not exactly proof that hordes of "people are saying" these things.
Next up, check out this ad by the Working Families Coalition (WFC) - a group of unions campaigning against Tim Hudak:
The Tories are especially upset by Working Families ads, because they see the WFC as a front for the Liberals.
(The Conservatives don't have any problem with third party ads, such as those run by the business sector's Chamber of Commerce against Bob Rae's government from 1990-1995. But they are very angry about the union-backed WFC.)
This ad shows someone called "Tim" agreeing, by shaking his head up and down, to cutting the human rights commission and full day kindergarten.
In fact Mr. Hudak has backtracked on both, promising now only to "fix" the commission and continue the Liberal promise to provide full day kindergarten for all.
Marcel Weider, who is in charge of developing the ad campaign, says the ads were made in the spring, before Mr. Hudak changed his mind.
However, they continue to run now.
And finally, there's the Tory attack ad:
Is it fair to count "future tax hikes to come," which haven't in fact happened?
Yes, it's election time. And fairness is the second casualty of political wars.
All parties say they want more people participating and coming out to vote in this election.
But critics say dishonest ads won't help that.
They say such ads do a disservice and make the average Ontarian - who is a very smart voter - turn off the whole process.