Monday, September 30, 2013

Accentuate the Positive

I've been giving a lot of thought on what to talk next about on the blog, and with news of the Saskatchewan Party's newest round of attack ads, I thought that would be a good place to start. But first, we need to have a small detour before we discuss attack ads themselves.

Recently, Brian Topp had a memo come out about what he felt went wrong with the British Columbia provincial election. As many of you are likely aware, the BC NDP led the polls for months, and then stumbled at the finish line as the BC Liberals were re-elected with a majority government. Part of Topp's memo explained the nature of attack ads used against then leader Adrian Dix, and how the process of 'nasty politics' seemed to change the outcome of the election.

Topp also explained that Dix had several other gaffe moments, which prompted Topp to say that the Harper Conservatives have the right of it when it comes to restricting access to the leader and prescreening media questions. Effectively, Topp conceded that a lot of basic decisions were wrong with the campaign; but it is his admission that the party took the high road to failure that we're concerned with.

Which bring us finally to the question: Is it always wrong to run a negative ad against your opponent?

The answer, surprisingly or not, is it depends.

"Attack Ads" tend to conjure images of saying that someone is a compulsive liar, or that they happen to eat babies on the weekend. Effectively, when you think of an attack ad or a negative ad, you tend to imagine that it is usually pandering to the lowest common denominator.

For example, let's look at an attack ad against Michael Ignatieff from 2011.

Wow, that's scary isn't it?

That is the general perception that we have of negative ads. Selective quotes from the person taken out of context (notice that while they are quotes, the ad doesn't mention the context they were uttered under.) Effectively, the idea that anything anyone says at anytime can come back to haunt them in a negative ad.

For example, let's say Person A asks Person B for their thoughts on the latest violent installment of the "Saw" movie series. Person B explains that "Under those kinds of conditions, you can understand the need for extreme violence without prejudice against a person like that." In the context of the conversation, it makes sense.

But taken out of context, it could mean anything.

Who is this person? What is extreme violence? And so on and so forth.

These are the kinds of negative ads that people tend to think of when we discuss the idea of whether you should use a negative ad or not.

Unequivocally, these are also the kinds of ads a party shouldn't run. They are fact distorting, highly misleading, and often focus on the personal rather than policy.

Stick with the Ignatieff punching bag, let's look at an ad the NDP ran against him in 2011.

Now, this is an ad that walks an interesting line, in that is straddles both the personal and policy. While perhaps a little too hokey, which does make it feel a bit more negative than it should, the ad doesn't use quotes from the Liberal leader or make reference to his background prior to politics. Rather, it highlights a simple truth: Ignatieff missed a lot of the Parliamentary session.

As Jack Layton said during the debate, you can't expect a promotion when you don't show up to work.

While this is undoubtedly a 'negative ad', it stands in stark contrast to the one ran by the Conservatives. The 'scary' background music that would fit in with a horror movie is missing, as are black and white photos that do the same to the leader. It also ends with Jack Layton offering a solid alternative, pledging to be there (referring to in the Commons) when elected.

Does that make this less of a negative ad?

In my opinion, it does. Negative ads focuses solely on one person and their party; they almost never include a sound proposal or rebuttal from the party that is running the ad. For the Conservative one, for example, Harper doesn't pop up at the end and condemn the things Ignatieff had said. It doesn't tell us Harper's opinion at all, or the position of his party, rather it just focuses on tearing down the Liberals.

Whereas the NDP ad, shows a fault with the Liberals and offers a rebuttal on how they would do things differently.

Another example of this is the ad the NDP ran against Harper in the last election.

Again, it uses the same tact that we saw against Ignatieff. Remind people of the banner of accountability that the Conservatives were elected under, while showing that things are continuing much the same as they were under the Liberals. Then offer the alternative.

Effectively, as stated above, these ads while highlighting a negative aspect of a party's platform or leadership style, at least offer a constructive discussion on moving forward. It's not just doom and gloom, like you see with the Conservative ads.

Lest people think I'm excluding the Liberals, here's one of their negative ads from 2011.

While a bit less dour than the Conservatives ads, it still falls into the same prat falls. Even worse, it runs into selective history.

It mentions the "unprincipled deal" by the NDP and Conservatives to bring down Paul Martin's government in 2005. Neglecting that the deal came about due to Liberal corruption allegations with regards to the Sponsorship Scandal. So yes, some things that progressive Canadians wanted to see came off the table, but the reason for it was fairly valid as no one wins when you prop up a perceived corrupt government.

The ad also fails to rise from the 'attack ad' mentality, in that the Liberals say they have a plan but offer no glimpse of it in the ad. For that, you have to go to the website.

But another Liberal ad from 2011, shows that they share some idea of how to attack with doom and gloom as well as the Conservatives.

Pretty close to the one ran against Ignatieff, more or less. Though, this one scores better points in at least presenting proper context. The ad does raise valid points and concerns, even with the doom and gloom messaging, but it fails to say what the Liberals would do instead. 

A clearer picture is starting to form, I hope, by this point. Effectively, there is a difference between a 'negative ad' and an 'attack ad'.

Negative ads highlight an issue, either from policy or leadership style, while offering a rebuttal from the party running the ad to say what they would do differently. Furthermore, 'negative ads' also focus on remaining as close to the issue as they can; they don't rely on hearsay, or out of context remarks, but do rely on presenting an issue in truth.

Attack ads highlight an issue, either from policy or leadership style or past remarks, and are used solely to demonized, destroy, and demolish the character of the person being portrayed. As such, attack ads often contain out of context remarks, innuendo, and as close to libel as you can get without getting sued.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at the ad the Saskatchewan Party is running against Cam Broten.
(My apologies for not being able to embed the video, but YouTube seems to not allow it for this one)

If you just want the Coles' Notes version, effectively the ad is saying that Cam continues to support the 2011 NDP policy of resource sharing with First Nations and ties him to the leadership style of Dwain Lingenfelter.

So, with our new understanding of 'negative' VS 'attack' ads, what category does this one fall into?

Well, by our judging criteria, it is an 'attack ad'. It highlights a policy, while avoiding commenting on the approach taken by their own party. It also, unfairly, tries to tie Cam to Lingenfelter, arguably one of the least popular Saskatchewan NDP leaders in recent years. I have a bit more to say about this particular point, but let's save that for a moment and do some fact checking on this attack ad.

It is true that Cam supports revenue sharing with First Nations, as was party policy during the 2011 election. However, if you go to MBC news (link), you'll see that Cam also says "it remains to be seen where the party will go on the issue."

The way I'm reading that is that the policy will remain but it will be retooled. I've commented before on how the problem with the policy was that it was too loosely defined (link), which allowed the Saskatchewan Party to play on fears, hearsay, rumours, and lies to define what 'revenue sharing' meant.  As such, Cam might be saying that the policy will be revisited and better defined for the next time the NDP trots it out in a policy booklet. (Which is how I'm reading this.)

The second way, which seems more unlikely, could be an admission that some in the party are grumbling about the policy and it's possible it could be defeated during Convention. While it isn't completely uncommon for party membership to reject parts of their leader's own policy ideals, I don't see it being said this way. Rather, if anything, I think it would be more likely to see party membership put it on the backburner until the policy is defined clearly and able to stand against Sask Party fearmongering.

The other major problem with this ad is that it falls into the Sask Party ill-defined zone. What I mean by that is, that revenue sharing is such a foreign concept to some people. It doesn't really explain what it is, or why they are seemingly against it, and why it makes Cam a horrible leader for supporting it.

If you checked the link regarding the last time we talked about revenue sharing, you'll know that I strongly feel racism played its part in letting people's fears run wild over the policy. And to a degree, that's what this ad is doing again. It is subtly playing on the convention 'fear of the other' that resonates so strongly in a person's mind. Not that I'm saying the Sask Party is racist, mind you, just that the ad is conjuring that kind of fear that invokes a response based on fear of the other; so whether they meant it or not is immaterial, as they did mean to invoke this kind of fear response.

That brings me to the little tidbit about tying Cam to Lingenfelter that I mentioned earlier. And this is another one of those moments where we can see a clear definition between a negative ad and an attack ad.

I say that because the NDP, myself included, have condemned the Saskatchewan Party and Brad Wall for their ties to Grant Devine and his government. It is a tact that people in Saskatchewan are familiar with. The difference here is that tying Wall to Devine is a much clearer case than it is tying Cam to Lingenfelter.

After all, Wall cut his political teeth in the Devine Government as a Ministerial Assistant. Whereas Cam, had already served as a MLA for a year prior to Lingenfelter's return to politics. Furthermore, Cam backed Deb Higgins for leadership over Lingenfelter during the race to replace Lorne Calvert. Effectively, the only real ties you can make for Cam to Lingenfelter is that they were in caucus at the same time. Whether or not Cam took any political mentoring from Lingenfelter, in the way I'm sure Wall did from Devine and the Ministers he served (one of whom, John Gerich, served two years in prison for his role in an expenses scandal) is beyond my knowledge.

Yes, I suppose that was a bit of an 'attack ad' approach there with that fact. But, what's good for the goose, right? After all, if they can tie Cam for his connection to the NDP's former leader, surely I can draw on Wall's connection to a former PC Cabinet Minister; right?

So, let's think on that for a moment. Was that distasteful? Or was it a valid point?

While it was valid, in context to the discussion, I don't think it's the kind of thing you put in an ad. But at the same time, is there an argument to be made that if one side is drawing on negative connections in the past the other side should do the same?

If anything, both sides would end up fighting to the middle. At the very least, it might change the channel and force both sides into developing a new talking point.

I'm going to close this post on this.

I think we've established that there is a difference between a 'negative' ad and an 'attack' ad. And while negative ads may strike some as distasteful, they add to the context of the political discussion. They also serve as a means of informing voters, and making sure that parties are held account for their record.

It is when these ads stray from record to the personal, when they become 'attack' ads that they begin to do disservice to the political process. And while there may be some desire to return hit-for-hit what is given to you, I think in the long run that doesn't help anyone.

But the correct approach isn't to take the high road 100%; on that much, Topp and I agree. But rather, the approach is to craft 'negative' ads that highlight the reasons why the other party shouldn't be given the trust of the electorate. Focus on record, focus on policy, and focus on what you offer as an alternative.

It comes down to this: If you ad is calling on rationality, on facts, and on record and asking people to make a change, you are doing it right.

If your ad is playing to emotion, bending the truth a little, and asking people to condemn a specific person or party, you're doing it wrong.

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