When political attack ads turn and bite the wrong prey

The Working Families campaign targeting Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown is just plain wrong – and stupid – and that means it will fail

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Warren KinsellaGo negative, sure.

But don’t fib.

The Working Families group has a new ad out. If you live in Ontario, you’ve likely seen it. If you don’t, you haven’t. But the ad is worth talking about because of the issues it raises.

Working Families describes itself as a group that was “created by members of the labour movement with the goal of making voters aware of policies that were threatening the well-being of working families across Ontario.” It doesn’t like conservatives very much.

Working Families has been around for a while. Before and during previous Ontario elections, it ran lots of ads going after the Progressive Conservatives. Even though I was the guy who ran then-Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty’s war rooms in 2003, 2007 and 2011, I can tell you that I was never a big fan of the ads.

The media assumed, wrongly, that we Ontario Liberals were secretly working with Working Families. I’d never met the shadowy figures behind Working Families, however. I couldn’t pick them out of a police lineup – which is where most PCs thought they belonged.

Their ads, I thought, were ham-fisted and off-message. As the Ontario Liberal war room guy, I didn’t need the media always suggesting that we were covertly conspiring with some U.S.-style dirty tricks operation to get around Ontario election law. But that’s what Working Families ad campaigns did more than anything else: they made our job harder.

For Ontario Liberals, the new Working Families ad campaign is going to create even more trouble. Among other things, it’s stupid.

It’s only 30 seconds long but it packs a lot of BS into that half-minute.

Now, it says, correctly, that Donald Trump’s election has caused “suffering.” It says, accurately, that Brexit is causing “chaos.”

But then the spot shows an unflattering photo of Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown, over ominous-sounding music. It says he’s against marriage equality and increasing the minimum wage and working families. “Now Patrick Brown promises change,” goes the ad. You know: Trump-style “change.”

So forget about the fact that Brown has lately marched in innumerable pride parades, now loudly favours gay marriage and wants to see the minimum wage increased. Forget all that.

The main allegation in the Working Families ad is that Brown is basically the Great White North version of Trump.

I’m a big fan of tough campaign ads. I’ve put together quite a few over the years. I’ve written books about them.

When polled, people will always say they don’t like negative political ads.

But that, to me, is letting language do our thinking for us. If you ask any sentient being if something “negative” is “positive,” they’ll obviously say no. Nobody likes car crashes, either, I like to say. But they always slow down to take a look.

Because the media scrutinize attack ads like no other form of political communication – and because voters don’t want to admit they’ve been motivated by an attack – attack ads must be 100 per cent accurate. There can’t be anything in them that is factually wrong. Nothing.

In the 2000 federal Liberal campaign, for example, a colleague and I spent an entire day agonizing over whether the placement of an ellipsis in a quote in an attack ad was going to get us in trouble. And it did. The impact of the ad was lost to a ton of process stories.

The campaign crew helping out Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne are the ones who cooked up the federal Grits’ “soldiers in the streets” spots in 2006. Those ads, more than any other factor, contributed to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s subsequent victory. Because they were BS.

The Working Families ad is BS. The notion that Brown – who has voted with the Liberals on every single tolerance/diversity issue in the legislature – is Trump is, well, crazy. And anyone making that claim, with a straight face, is either a liar or stupid. Or both.

Go negative, for sure. It isn’t ever wrong to criticize the public record of an opponent seeking high public office.

 But don’t lie about it. Because those rotten eggs you want to throw at your opponent?

They’re going to bounce off him and hit you.

Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.

Warren is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Warren Kinsella

Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.

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