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Sunday, September 26, 2021

What’s in an ad? Dissecting the parties’ early campaign messaging

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OTTAWA — The three main parties are now into their third week of making pitches to the public, and have released a series of advertisements trying to get their messages across.

CTVNews.ca picked three similar 30-second ads released by the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP in the early days of the campaign, and spoke with marketing strategists and experienced political advertisers about them.

Given they would have been produced and shot just prior to the election call, they offer a sense of what the ads signal about the intended messages and strategies each campaign had heading into this race.

And, with new advertising buys either in the works or already kicking off as each party tries to sharpen their focus on what the ballot box question will be, the experts dissect when or why some campaigns should, or already have pivoted, and what they think each party should be showing Canadians in future spots.

Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau ad: ‘Relentless’ 

What it says: This ad begins with, and relies on throughout, scenic shots of Canadian landscapes spliced with uplifting scenes of folks during the pandemic: in PPE on the front lines, masked at the grocery store, or protesting for change. Trudeau is also shown interacting with folks, sleeves rolled up. Overlaid with those visuals is Trudeau’s voice, talking about having each others’ backs and the need to “move forward, for everyone.”

Political marketing strategist and brand consultant Clive Veroni described this ad as “a bit like wallpaper,” and while the message is about moving forward, the visuals indicate “more of the same.”

“There’s a lot visually going on… But even though there’s a lot going on, there’s actually not a lot being conveyed through this advertisement. It all feels very familiar, like we’ve been here before. There doesn’t seem to be anything new, or surprising, or particularly motivating about it. It’s a fairly forgettable ad,” Veroni said.

What it lacks: David Rosenberg, who worked with the Liberals on the 2015 Trudeau ads and is the chief creative officer at the advertising agency Bensimon Byrne, said this ad “doesn’t say enough.” He said that over the years, having tested in focus groups various versions of the idea of “moving forward,” it is too vague and not motivating enough for voters.

Similarly, Dennis Matthews, the president of advertising agency Creative Currency, and who was the national marketing lead for the federal Conservatives during the 2015 Stephen Harper campaign, said this spot from the Liberals, which ran for the first two weeks of this election, mirrors in some ways Trudeau’s early campaign overall.

“It almost verges on feeling a little bit like, you know, a tourism ad or something that’s meant to rally behind… But then doesn’t really sort of ultimately deliver on that choice that the Liberals are now realizing I think they need to define a bit,” Matthews said. “This ‘forward together’ is sort of a version of slogans they’ve had before, but again it doesn’t necessarily set up any sort of contrast or big choice or it isn’t necessarily about anything and again I think it speaks to some of the challenges the Liberals have had in the early part of this campaign.”

Where the party goes from here: “I think the Liberals need to sharpen and tighten their message, they have to have much more focused and assertive messaging moving forward… They need to acknowledge the mood of the moment, and then talk about where we’re going next,” Veroni said.

Over this past weekend, the Liberals did come out with two new spots, one focused on COVID-19 and vaccines, and the other on housing. Matthews described the pair as a “sharpening” of their message, and seeking to set up a direct contrast between their pitch to voters and what the Conservatives are proposing.

“Both were more specific, both said something, both promised what the Liberals were going to do on both counts, and I thought they were more effective,” said Rosenberg, adding that from his perspective, it would be in the Liberals’ best interest to get these ads out there more.

Conservative Party and Erin O’Toole ad: ‘Secure the future.’

What it says: This ad begins with a shot of O’Toole that is reminiscent of one of Trudeau’s more memorable 2015 election campaign ads, with him walking towards the camera at a park near Parliament Hill. It then cuts to a mix of stock images and images of O’Toole over his life, including in the military and in a hard hat, while talking about his recovery plan to get the country “back on track.” All throughout, words driving home the party’s message are displayed on the bottom third of the screen, a key way advertisers look to contend with viewers watching it on mute.

In contrast with the introductory ad from the Liberals, Veroni said that this spot has “a sense of positive, optimistic, forward momentum,” that is more strongly conveyed. The slogan is also a “statement of action,” which he said matches the energy of the ad.

“The sort of action-oriented, workman-like ‘man with a plan’ feel is something that you’re seeing in all of the Conservative advertising from social posts through to this ad… And I think that the military intro is a really important part because it’s critical to fill in the gaps on who is Erin O’Toole. You know he was a COVID-time opposition leader, there wasn’t really an opportunity for him to showcase himself in any sort of real way to voters,” said Matthews.

What it lacks: While not a criticism, Rosenberg said that this video lacks some of the “inauthentic,” and “almost car salesman-like energy,” seen in some of the pre-campaign videos released by the Conservatives. It’s also a far departure from the Willy Wonka spoof video that was pulled for copyright after being panned by many, including Conservative MPs.

“This ad shows him as a very purposeful, non-threatening kind of candidate who has a very specific plan I mean, he introduces a right there in the ad… Prior to that in the first 10 seconds of the ad we learn a little bit about him and his military background,” Rosenberg said.

Where the party goes from here: “I think this ad has proven popular. We’re not even at Sept. 1 yet, I don’t think even most Canadians have woken up to the fact that we’re in an election so I think this ad still has legs,” Rosenberg said, adding that when the Conservatives do want to change it up, his advice would be to always link the message back to their proposed recovery plan.

“I think the word recovery itself is very relevant right now and I think he’s I think he’s diagnosed how most Canadians are feeling,” he said.

The party has come out with some additional messaging, including an attack-style ad that features a boxer in red gloves punching through glass on the screen, talking about how voters need to “hit back” on the Liberal-NDP-Green “alliance” that “has you on the ropes,” before going to some of the same visuals of O’Toole used in the aforementioned ad.

“I think it’s the most interesting out of the campaign so far, for all parties. When we’re in this world where affordability is the sort of the big underlying issue of the campaign, it’s speaking directly to the struggles that people are feeling on cost of living and other things, and does so in a very dramatic way that has a creative concept there that captures attention… It’s just one of those creative spots that once you see it you remember it,” Matthews said.

From Veroni’s perspective, he thinks the Conservatives could hold off on doing any more aggressive attack ads against their opponents as “they don’t need it right now.”

New Democratic Party and Jagmeet Singh ad: ‘Do more’

What it says: This ad begins with Singh walking towards the camera, talking about how action matters more than words, in an accusation levelled against Trudeau. Singh then pivots to what his ideas are for how to “build a better future,” while showing a diverse range of Canadians, some of whom Singh interacts with.

“The problem with this communication is all talk and no action is not a credible statement. The average viewer, the average voter watching — this ad will have a disconnect, because they’ve just lived through this pandemic, where literally the government deposit money directly into their bank account. And the government secured vaccines that were literally deposited into their arms. So a claim of ‘all talk and no action,’ it creates dissonance,” Veroni said.

Rosenberg also picked up on this aspect of the ad.

“The art of advertising is about telling the truth in the most compelling way possible, the most original and compelling way possible. And this ad simply does not start out with the truth,” he said.

What it lacks: Speaking generally, Matthews said that in all of the NDP ads he’s seen so far, they all include a hard contrast between Singh and Trudeau.

“Where I think there’s some gaps is… how do they show and prove that he’s got the plans or got the ability to execute on them,” he said. “They’ve got to find a way to take it to that next step, where they’re seen as a natural choice to actually deliver on it.”

Veroni also picked up on Singh’s use of passive language, suggesting he should be more direct than “better is possible.”

Where the party goes from here: Matthews said the NDP are setting themselves up with a “two-step argument,” where they first plant seeds of doubt in Trudeau, which they have been doing, but need to focus in the next three weeks on step two: convincing voters to support them instead.

“The NDP needs to find a way to express the anti-Trudeau message in a more credible way… And they need to, I think, inject a bit more energy and a bit more sense of action,” said Veroni.

“I’d like to know what animates Jagmeet personally, you know, my suspicion is that what animates him is essentially what animates NDP policy, which is fairness for the most Canadians… What does he mean by that? Tell us in a compelling way, how he’s going to help the majority of Canadians. If they concentrate their messages on that, with the power of his personal appeal, his personality, I think they would be a lot better off,” said Rosenberg. 

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