COVER

PRIME TIME FOR A BLITZ OF ADS

COMMERCIALS, NOT POLICY, PREVAIL

PEETER KOPVILLEM October 31 1988
COVER

PRIME TIME FOR A BLITZ OF ADS

COMMERCIALS, NOT POLICY, PREVAIL

PEETER KOPVILLEM October 31 1988

PRIME TIME FOR A BLITZ OF ADS

COVER

COMMERCIALS, NOT POLICY, PREVAIL

The run-down yellow building in an unfashionable industrial area of Vancouver seemed like an unlikely setting for a video studio. But inside the two-storey, cinder-block structure, the bright television lights blazed as Stanley Olsen, a commercial director with Michael Morgan Communications, consulted with actors Suzanne Ouellette and Paul Batten. Their assignment: to portray two ordinary Canadians seated behind a rolltop desk and worriedly studying their tax returns. In the TV commercial for the New Democratic Party, a voiceover alleges that the Conservative government has not delivered on its promise of tax reform. The ad will form part of the NDP media blitz that—along with those of the other major parties— will flicker across Canadian TV sets for the final four weeks of the election campaign. Officials of all three parties say that their television campaigns will be critical to their ability to capture the hearts, minds and votes of Canadians. And it was at viewers’ hearts that the actors in Vancouver aimed their performances.

“We didn’t have to say anything,” Ouellette said after the shooting. “We just emoted.” Images: Under the Canada Elections Act, political advertising can take place only during the last four weeks of a federal election campaign. In the current campaign, the act’s complicated formula for allocating free and paid advertising time—based partially on political standings and the number of seats being contested—gives the majority Tories a distinct advantage over the Liberals and the NDP. In fact, the Conservatives—who held 207 of the 282 Commons seats at dissolution—were allocated 195 minutes of paid air time, compared with 89 for the Liberals and 67 for the NDP. And although Tory sources declined to say

precisely how much they are spending on media advertising, some reports put the total at more than the $3.2 million that they spent in the 1984 campaign—compared with about $3 million each for the Liberals and the NDP this year. But spokesmen for all three parties agree that it will be money well spent because the commercials take their messages directly to the Canadian people.

For the Conservatives’ ad campaign, a production crew treated the first three weeks of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s electoral campaign as a movable set and continually shot Mulroney campaigning. From that footage, Tory strategists drew images to be featured in some of the approximately 12 ads that the Tories plan to run. Those commercials are intended to reinforce the public’s impression of Mulroney as a statesmanlike prime minister and underline the Conservative message of prosperity and competence. The focus is similar to the one the party used during the second half of the 1984 campaign—when it became clear that it would win a massive majority.

Indeed, some Tory ads will contain favorable media assessments of the government. In one, featuring a series of still photos of the Prime Minister, the announcer lists pro-Mulroney reviews, among them: “The Kingston WhigStandard calls him a national leader of purpose and courage.” In another, the announcer proclaims, “Our country has taken the biggest single step in its history toward determining its own economic future, said the Edmonton Sun.” Said Harry Near, director of communications for the Tory campaign: “They are very positive, very upbeat.” And that message, added media analyst Derrick de Kerckhove, a professor at the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, is probably what the Conservatives are likely to need to win. “Mulroney does not have to do anything,” de Kerckhove said, except evoke “expressions of confidence, power—and money, money, money.”

‘Swell’: The Tory’s English-language campaign was created by Thomas Scott, chairman of Toronto’s Sherwood Capital Inc. In Quebec, Tory ads will concentrate a little more on the

Prime Minister himself—largely because of his native-son popularity there. But Tory strategists said that some English-language commercials may attempt to portray Mulroney in a warmer, more humane light—a clear response to opinion polls showing that many Canadians mistrust Mulroney while giving him high marks for competence and administrative abilities. The aim, according to one senior Tory, is to show that Mulroney is not only a good manager but “a swell guy that Canadians might want to have a beer with.”

The NDP is also returning to themes aired in 1984, in particular to issues that party officials say affect ordinary Canadians. Julie Mason,

director of the party’s media campaign, said that after testing the message on focus groups—small gatherings of representative voters—party officials concluded that viewers respond best to “folks talking about things that are of interest to them.” As a result, NDP ads feature actors playing ordinary Canadians concerned about issues such as free trade, taxes, the environment and the Tories’ failure to keep promises.

Polluted: Party leader Edward Broadbent will be the main player in only two of the 12 ads that the NDP will run in English and French Canada.

In the French-language ads, his name will figure more prominently—largely because of his personal popularity and the fact that, as a party, the NDP has failed to make permanent inroads in Quebec. But even in the English-language commercials,

Broadbent’s name will appear in all of them—often invoked as the one man capable of saving Canada from misfortune at the hands of the other two parties. In one ad, a man and his grandson walk beside a lake on a quiet fall day. The grandfather explains that the lake is now polluted, and tells his grandson that things will not change until Canada gets “a leader who will stand up to the big corporate polluters.

Brian Mulroney promised us that but he let us down.”

When the boy asks how things could be changed, the man replies that he will vote for Broadbent and the New Democrats. Asks the little boy: “Can I vote NDP too?”

Impassioned: Unlike the Tory and NDP advertisements, those run by the Liberals will be substantially different from 1984. Then, the party was trying to distinguish Turner, then prime minister, from his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau.

This year’s campaign, masterminded by David Morton, vice-president of marketing and sales at Quaker Oats Co. of Canada Ltd. in Peterborough, Ont., will address such concerns as housing and the environment. But Morton said that the commercials will focus most forcefully on the issue that the Liberal 5 leader has made the centrepiece of 2 his campaign: the perceived dangers 2 of the Canada-U.S. free trade deal. I One Liberal ad begins with a sound track of Mulroney’s June, 1983, statement as opposition leader that a U.S.-Canada free trade deal “affects Canadian sovereignty, and we will have none of it.” A picture shows Mulroney in Parliament, looking to the right of the screen. Then, the sound track features a pro-free-trade statement from Mulroney—

while another clip of Mulroney in the House shows him looking to the left of the screen. Helped by the magic of special effects, the two Mulroneys merge, joined back to back in centre screen, as an announcer intones: “Say one thing, mean another. Don’t let Mulroney deceive you again.”

According to the Liberal advertising strate-

gy, the Quebec ads will feature tougher attacks on Mulroney and his government’s record. But in one respect, the party’s strategists faced a major dilemma: how to feature Turner himself prominently in the commercials. Morton acknowledged that there had been “varying opinions” over featuring the Liberal leader.

A sense that Canadians do not like ads that brutally attack the other party

But he told Maclean ’s that Turner will appear in half of the 12 commercials that the party has shot, speaking about issues against a plain backdrop. “Some of us have the growing feeling that we should be getting Mr. Turner on more, not less,” Morton said, “because he is obviously an issue.” ’

In one of the personalized advertisements, the Liberal leader attacks the trade deal—and shows how effective his much-publicized media make-over has been. The ad shows no signs of the awkwardness and stiffness that have frequently marred his appearances in the past. Instead, Turner appears impassioned and sincere as he declares: “I’m not going to allow

Brian Mulroney to sell out our birthright as a nation. I’m not going to let Brian Mulroney destroy the Canadian dream.”

Artful: But de Kerckhove, for one, says that Turner might have benefited more by avoiding his battle cry—and appearing more relaxed and positive. “Turner’s basic job is to cool his image,” he said. “Arguments are the last thing you want on TV.” But Morton said that the Liberal ads are not unduly negative or argumentative. “The intent has been to get the Canadian people to think about the issue that is before us,” he said. At the same time, media analysts and politicians expressed their conviction that negative ads as brutally direct as those used in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign would not work in Canada. Canadians, observed Morton, “are a much softer and kinder people.” But politicians from all three parties can now only wait and see if the voters will respond favorably to their artful and expensive messages—because even Canadians can be brutal in the privacy of the polling booth.

PEETER KOPVILLEM with correspondents’ reports