CALGARY — They’re ominous, dark and aimed directly at the basic instincts of Canadian voters and take full advantage of that slight inattentive coma that most viewers lapse into when commercials come on during their favourite TV shows.
And Canadians can expect more of the same with a federal election looming and political parties continue their barrage of negative campaign ads, according to a University of Calgary professor who has done a study on how language is processed in the brain.
“When people aren’t devoting their full attention to the ads that’s when they’re most likely to be swayed by some of these elements that aren’t about the issues and aren’t about rational thought processes,” explained Julie Sedivy, adjunct associate professor of linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary.
“Canadians have definitely become desensitized to a more negative style of campaigning.
“There used to be a more visceral reaction to it,” she said. “The costs of using the negative campaigning have really dwindled.
“It’s like violence on TV.”
It’s not about the issues said Sedivy — it’s about the emotions and reaction that the ads generate.
She points to the series of Conservative ads that targeted Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
They include black-and-white still and televised images of Ignatieff that are bordered by quotes he’s given over the past few years.
Each commercial opens with the line “Michael Ignatieff is back in Canada” and close with “Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you.”
“The anti-Ignatieff ads are really hitting at a kind of a gut level of distrust. They’re focusing on a message that is painting Ignatieff as reckless, dangerous but they’re also questioning his motive,” said Sedivy.
“He didn’t come back for you is a really complex little phrase because it kind of highlights the fact he has somewhat of an outsider status so he’s not really one of us,” she said.
“That’s really hitting a primitive level of association. Everything in these ads is kind of working together to create a feeling that Ignatieff being outside of the group and fostering a sense of distrust.”
The Liberal counter-attack uses much of the same approach she said. In one spot the words “deceit”, abuse, contempt“ are displayed prominently behind a picture of Harper.
The script reads that Harper “shut down Parliament to silence his critics and now he’s dictating that the government of Canada should be called the Harper Government … Harper thinks he’s above the law.”
“The charges of corruption and contempt of court that are surfacing — I think we’re going to see is a lot of parallels that are being drawn with events in the Middle East,” said Sedivy.
“We’re seeing words like dictating and dictatorial in response to Harper. I’ve heard the term Harper Regime which of course brings to mind all of the regimes in the Middle East.”
Canadians need to make a concerted effort to avoid being influenced subliminally, said Sedivy, and to perhaps turn the channel when the negative ads come on.
“Even when we think we’re thinking rationally we might be affected by these types of pitches to emotion, associations with words, that really run at a level of our mind that is just not accessible to our conscious awareness.”
Sedivy and colleague Dr. Greg Carlson, professor at the University of Rochester, say if there is a federal election this spring, political campaigns will pour resources into determining the language the public will respond to. That language may have nothing to do with communicating the best ideas, but how the ideas are presented.
Sedivy and Carlson’s research is published in the book Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What this Says About You.