Friday, June 06, 2014

Look for more tarted up political mail-outs coming right at you with your taxpayer dollars! Ask your Member of Parliament for a World Cup schedule .....

Delacourt: Political advertising now comes in gimmicky package

Political parties used to rely on words alone to persuade voters, but now they couch their messages in World Cup schedules or fake newspaper front pages

Susan Delacourt/Parliament Hill
Friday, June 6, 2014
Campaign pamphlets for NDP candidate Joe Cressy in the Trinity-Spadina federal byelecton offer a World Cup schedule.

The federal New Democrats have come up with a creative way to advertise their political wares to voters who may have other things than politics on their minds this month.

A World Cup schedule, doubling as an NDP campaign leaflet, turned up in Trinity-Spadina and Toronto-Danforth this week, ridings with — no coincidence — large constituencies of avid soccer fans.

“Sharing your passion for The Beautiful Game,” the pamphlet announces in NDP orange and black on the front, with a photo of the local candidate or MP. In Toronto-Danforth, it’s NDP MP Craig Scott’s face on the cover; in Trinity-Spadina, where a byelection is under way, it’s NDP candidate Joe Cressy.

The pamphlets surfaced during the same week the NDP was coming under fire from its rivals in Ottawa over its advertising methods. In what the New Democrats decried as a “kangaroo court” ruling, the party was slammed by the Commons’ Board of Internal Economy for using public resources for political ads. “The board determined that a number of mailings sent by NDP members of Parliament were prepared by and for the benefit of the NDP as a political party and to advance electoral purposes and are therefore in contravention of the bylaws,” John Duncan, the Chief Government Whip, announced on Tuesday.

Throughout the subsequent hours and days, New Democrats loudly protested that this decision was nothing but an effort by the Conservatives and Liberals to “gang up” on the NDP and block the party from advertising practices that have been carried out for years by its opponents.

“There’s little doubt there’s a connection between these shenanigans and the Ontario provincial election,” NDP MP Pat Martin told The Hill Times this week. “There are some ridings that if they can hurt our support by one or two points, Conservatives win seats in certain parts of Ontario.”

Does the average voter care about this inside-the-Ottawa-bubble tussle over advertising methods? Probably not.

When a political ad arrives through the mail, does the average citizen pore over its contents to determine who paid for it? Again, probably not. A marketing-research fact sheet distributed by Canada Post a few years ago said that the response rate for all direct-mail advertising — not just political ads — was a scant 2.18 per cent. Political parties, in short, might be better off mailing those pamphlets directly to the local recycling stations.

The trick these days, it seems, is to make political advertising look like something slightly more useful: a World Cup schedule, for instance, or the front page of a newspaper.

On the morning after the televised leaders’ debate in the Ontario election this week, two parties bought “wraparound” ads on the front pages of free daily papers. “Hudak wins debate,” was the headline on the mock front page of 24 Hours Toronto. “Horwath leads,” meanwhile, was the headline on the wraparound ad in the Metro papers.

The small print in the ads clarified that these front pages were actually produced by political parties, not editors, but it would be interesting to poll readers to see who noticed and, more important, who cared.

Relevance is the real issue, it seems.

Advertisers, private or political, are always going to try to slip their sales messages into products that are useful to consumers or citizens: pens, T-shirts, newspapers, World Cup schedules.

An exhibit at Brock University last week, during the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, displayed the work of the talented Terry O’Malley from the old Vickers and Benson agency, also a chief advertising firm associated with the federal Liberals through the 1970s and 1980s.

Some of the ads, and the stories behind them, looked startlingly earnest by today’s standards — newspaper ads laden with words, not pictures, an assumption that people would care enough about political issues of the day to read the fine print.

One objective of the 1980 constitutional ad campaign, for example, was “to educate the public of Canada that the constitution is more than an abstract document, that it is the foundation of the unity of the country.”

Can you imagine that sentence being written into any political advertising memo these days? Instead, every party takes as its mantra: “No one wants to talk about the constitution.”

Creative credit, then, goes to the NDP for trying to slip a little politics into the hands of World Cup viewers. It’s probably a more effective form of advertising than the mailouts that landed them in controversy this week.

A harder question, though, is why political advertising is held in such low esteem that it now has to masquerade as something more relevant to Canadians. Educating the public doesn’t have to be a mission that’s gone entirely out of fashion.

Susan Delacourt is a member of the Star’s parliamentary bureau. She can be reached at


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