Election 2015: when it comes to political ads, it's a mixed bag

All three main political parties could be doing a better job of getting their message out through television ads, David Soberman says.

A professor of marketing and the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing at the Rotman School of Management, Soberman has worked in marketing management for Molson Breweries, Nabisco Brands and Imperial Oil. Soberman, who analyzed the first leaders' debate for U of T News, is one of the experts providing analysis and commentary on the election campaign. (Read an interview with Associate Professor Peter Loewen of the department of political science about campaign strategy. Read an interview with Professor Kent Roach of the Faculty of Law on the prime minister's proposed travel ban.)

Soberman watched television ads in his office and shared his reactions with U of T News.

What is your assessment of the Conservatives’ “he’s just not ready” ad about Justin Trudeau?
I think for a year or so that it did a fairly effective job of raising doubts about Justin Trudeau’s competence and the depth in which he would be able to do the job as prime minister. There was no advertising to counter it. But in the [Maclean’s] debate a lot of people saw Trudeau and have now seen him campaign.

While you might not agree with him or vote for him, people have come to realize that a lot of what is being said in the ads isn’t fair. There is not really any support for it. When that happens, when people see something they don’t really believe is justified, I don’t think the ad achieves its objectives. 

The ads make other claims, concerning his views on balancing the budget and his hair.
Before someone is prime minister they’re never ready to be prime minister so that could be a basis for an argument against anybody (including Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in 2006). This issue of balancing a budget: People balance budgets all the time, when you become an adult have to balance a budget. Of course Trudeau hasn’t balanced a budget in a government setting because he hasn’t been in power. 

The “nice hair” remark is gratuitous. I am not the greatest fan of attack ads. They work when your opponent has a significant weakness that people have to be made aware of, but when the ads descend to the mud-slinging – and I would say “nice hair” is mud-slinging – I don’t think they play a positive role in the political process.

How do you view the NDP ad about “corruption” in the Conservative government that includes the Senate scandal?
It’s also an attack ad but in contrast to the Conservative attack ads on Trudeau the NDP is actually focusing on things that have happened. People can check to see that these things all happened during the course of the Harper government. The suggestion from the NDP is that if you vote for us this will change. 

Another ad with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair talking about middle-class values and trying to take care of people conveys a more positive message. But most of it could have been a Liberal or Conservative ad, it is so generic. I don’t even know what middle class values are. Work hard, take care of your fellow man? You know what? Most wealthy people work hard and are some of the biggest donors to hospitals and charities in Canada. 

I would love to see these ads answer the question: “What are you going to do that is different?” We don’t tend to see that. 

What about the Liberal ad in response to the Conservatives’ “not ready”?
That is a very clever ad. [Trudeau] is able to use the Conservatives’ slogan as a basis for his thing, which is that he is “not ready” for people to lose their jobs, not ready to watch people fall further behind, not ready to watch the economy decline. I think that is a good message.

Trudeau’s ad on helping the middle class is nice because he actually talks specifically about taxing the rich to help relieve middle-class taxpayers. What he leaves very amorphous is what exactly he is going to do. Tax the top one per cent more? You don’t want to have the situation in France, where some people are moving to Belgium, Switzerland or Russia. You don’t want to scare your wealthy people away. Still, it’s interesting that while the NDP talks about change [in general], these guys [the Liberals] talk about real change.

What advice would you give the Conservatives?
I would stop the attack ads. Continuing with them makes [Trudeau’s response] more effective. The second reason is that I think Trudeau has shown himself on the campaign trail to be far more competent and deep than the Conservative ads portray. And the third reason is those ads are playing right into the NDP’s hands. If the Conservatives spend heavily to weaken the Liberals, that support is much more likely to go toward the NDP. In many ridings they could actually help the NDP win.

What advice would you give the NDP?
I would go for the jugular on the Mike Duffy trial. I think what we’ve seen is that the PMO’s chief of staff approved a policy that basically deceived Canadians. The idea that the prime minister would have somebody in his office who thinks that deception is OK is worrisome. And they (the Conservatives) are very vulnerable. The NDP or the Liberals could present the facts that have come out in court and ask: When people in the Conservative Party speak, can you believe them?

What advice would you give the Liberals?
They should keep running the ad that has Justin Trudeau saying he is “not ready.” And I think they should probably be a little more specific in how they are actually going to fund the $5 billion he says he is going to give to the middle class. They need to be more specific with their policies and explain why they make sense.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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