Attack ads nasty but they work

Here’s the thing about so-called attack ads: Apparently they work. During the last federal election, polling done by Nanos Research found attack ads, such as the ones directed at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at the time, didn’t have a dramatic effect in the short term, but in the long term can help frame the target in the way the attacker wants, rather than the subject of the attack.

Here’s the thing about so-called attack ads: Apparently they work.

During the last federal election, polling done by Nanos Research found attack ads, such as the ones directed at Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at the time, didn’t have a dramatic effect in the short term, but in the long term can help frame the target in the way the attacker wants, rather than the subject of the attack.

Similar research in Canada and other jurisdictions suggests the same thing.

So expect to see more, a lot more, of the sort of ads now popping up in Ontario, in which Dalton McGuinty becomes the tax man, and Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is portrayed as being untrustworthy.

Yes, they cater to the lowest common denominator — they’re high on the visceral scale and low on intellectual content.

They’re focused on narrow issues and often misleading context, a prime example being the tax man-themed ads targeting McGuinty. What the ads don’t tell you is that nearly all the tax measures attacked by the Conservatives will remain in place if they are elected, which most pundits believe will be the case come election day Oct. 6.

The same ads slam the harmonized sales tax, without acknowledging that much of the drive behind the HST came from the Harper Conservatives, as well as other provincial Conservatives such as Mike Harris and John Tory.

Doesn’t matter. The campaign strategists understand that if they identify key vulnerabilities and concoct attack ads that target them repeatedly and doggedly, some percentage of the electorate responds.

The reaction from both provincial Liberals and Conservatives to new attack ads is as disingenuous as the ads themselves.

The Liberals refused to stoop to that level in 2007, but insist that doing so now is acceptable because Hudak needs to be exposed.

The Conservatives are puffed up and indignant about the ads targeting their leader and platform, even though they started attacking McGuinty months ago.

If the situation wasn’t so unfortunate, all this rank hypocrisy would be funny.

But the fact that superficial, often inaccurate sound bytes are actually helping citizens decide how to vote isn’t remotely humorous.

Neither is the fact that this is exactly the sort of business-as-usual political tactic that increases voter disengagement, particularly among young citizens who recognize attack ads for what they are: vapid, shallow, long on sizzle but short on substance.

You would think that, for that reason if no other, Liberals and Conservatives alike would eschew attack advertising in favour of more substantial strategy.

But they won’t.

Now that the Ontario campaign is just around the corner, for the participants it is increasingly about who wins and who loses.

Of course, they care about more meaningful political dialogue that might actually grow engagement and maybe even increase voter turnout. They just don’t let it get in the way of their election strategy.

An editorial from the Hamilton Spectator.