The selling of the candidates

Roy MacGregor May 7 1979

The selling of the candidates

Roy MacGregor May 7 1979

The selling of the candidates


Roy MacGregor

More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that the candidate doesn't matter a sweet damn in these things. — A Liberal candidate for re-election

Within a dozen cramped blocks in downtown Toronto there are to be found three versions of the future. The singular point they have in common is that all are scheduled to begin this coming May 22, election day. The first version belongs to Jerry Grafstem, a bright lawyer who looks like a reconditioned Woody Allen, larger and hairier, a man who has recently spent so many 18-hour days rifling through telephone messages that he has become convinced he “can hear something moving out there.” He fidgets with the brim of a red baseball cap with the insignia “Pierre, Number 1,” gestures grandly out the window and, ironing the syllables for best effect, pronounces “It.. .is... working.” The second vision of this same future belongs to Lawrence Wolf, and he believes it is not working, at least not for Jerry Grafstein. Wolf,

his horseshoe of wild hair conjuring up hints of a mad scientist at work, sits gleefully watching a film of NDP leader Ed Broadbent playing a stilted and bilingual game of crazy eights with his wife and daughter. Broadbent looks like he’s serving a detention, yet Wolf spins his thumbs and declares this same man to be “the sleeper of the campaign—he’s a long shot but he could win.” Barely a sales pitch away the third interpretation of Canada post-May 22 is to be found in the office of Peter Swain, where the prayers of Joe Clark sit in video cassettes waiting to be answered. Swain moves quickly from the authorized work to another pile of tapes and cassettes on his desk. “All these arrived in the mail,” he says excitedly. “Songs, most of them, all unsolicited. Even an entire commercial done by some guy. Just goes to show you how anxious people are to get the Liberal party out of power and the Conservatives in.”

It is without precedent, this current advertising campaign that got under way April 22. In the 1974 federal election, party advertising amounted to $2.7

million and will rise to around $6 million this time, but that is not why this one is different. The true difference is time. In 1974, the two major parties took up 86 per cent of the paid radio time and 80 per cent of the paid television time; this time the revised Election Act requires that 6V2 hours of primetime, paid radio and television be allocated to the various parties according to their 1974 elected members and popular vote results. So though the Liberals get 155 minutes and the Tories 134 minutes, the NDP are guaranteed 63 minutes, the Social Credit 22 minutes, and eight minutes each to the Communist party of Canada and the Marxist-Leninist party of Canada. The taxpayer will foot the cost of fully half of this paid time, and the parties will also have access to massive quantities of free-time radio and television as well (six hours and 11 */2 hours respectively). And although Jerry Grafstein says the Liberal campaign during the 29 days that advertising is permitted will not amount to “onequarter of a McDonald’s campaign blitz,” the Liberals will probably spend some $2.25 million convincing Canada’s 15 million voters to give Pierre Trudeau a second—make that fourth—chance. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives will say what they are spending (it will all come out after the campaign) but it is generally believed the Tories are budgeting $2.5 million. The NDP, always the most open about such matters, say they will spend $1.2 million; they also say it will mean an end to the NDP’s past history of slipping up to three points in the final weeks of a campaign, when the major party avalanche of advertising has had a tendency to bury them.

The three masterminds—Grafstein, Wolf and Swain—are all out to make the same friend: the undecided voter. And it is for this reason that the true advertising war will be waged on the shallowest medium, television. “The people who pay the most attention to the news media tend to be the most partisan,” says Dr. Thomas Patterson, an American expert on the media and politics. “Television is far more likely to reach the undecided because those who are informed read rather than view television.” The last Gallup poll put the undecided Canadian voter at 35 per cent

of the total, a massive number that has the advertising men positively drooling. “The least-motivated voter is the most important voter,” says Grafstein. And it is significant that Lawrence Wolf’s first fight with his NDP employers concerned precisely this point. A print-oriented party in the past, the NDP was keen to return once again to that medium, but Wolf argued for no use of print whatsoever. And he won. The NDP—with only 15 points in the last Gallup—has the most to gain in the undecided voter numbers.

Lawrence Wolf was the appropriate agency to choose for a party interested in getting the public to swallow a new political line. Wolf’s expertise is in new product marketing, particularly new foods, and it was a major step for the NDP to turn from the agency of the old party faithful, Montreal’s Manny Dunsky, to a fast-paced, vibrant and proudly capitalistic Toronto company. “It took a lot of balls,” says Wolf. “We were the sensible choice, but we’re not really the safe choice. One, I’m American. Two, I’m hardly known as a political socialist. All my Rosedale friends say ‘Hey, how can you work for this guy?’ ” But, in truth, Wolf finds it a delight. â Broadbent’s main problem, according to ^ his new packager, was that he was i “misperceived.” Wolf believed people

saw Broadbent as a wild-eyed doctrinaire socialist and, though Broadbent disagreed with this interpretation, Wolf again won. “One of the things we’re trying to do is clear up any misrepresentations of that image,” says Wolf. “Move that image to a more centralist point.” To that end, much is made of Lucille Broadbent’s attractive television presence, having her discuss inflation from the point of view of a homemaker, for example, rather than having a Broadbent speech on inflation run. The NDP packagers are concerned that the party leader’s tendency toward shrillness not appear on the screen, and so will be using no clips from the House of Commons. Peter Swain’s company, Media Buying Services Ltd. also may not be using House tapes, though Conservative Party leader Joe Clark comes across at his best from the Opposition benches. The reason is simply qualityvideotape is an anemic cousin to film — and the Tories are willing to buy the best. All creative work is farmed out to other, specialized firms (McLauchlanMohr-Massey Ltd. for the free-time five-, sevenand 12-minute segments and Lauron Productions Ltd. for the short commercials) and Swain acts as go-between for the creative types and National Campaign Chairman Lowell

Murray at PC headquarters in Ottawa, who, with Joe Clark, makes the final decisions on ads. No one wants to be quoted, but the Tories are delighted that they no longer have to deal with the headaches of presenting an acceptable Robert Stanfield on television, despite the man’s excellence in the flesh. Still, they are also aware that Clark is no Pierre Trudeau. “Trudeau is the consummate actor,” says Swain. “Well, we don’t have that. Joe Clark says I am what I am and I won’t be packaged by the ad people. It may make things more difficult for us but it’s good for the Canadian people. Essentially, our job is to show that he does understand the problems and he does have solutions.”

The assignment at Red Leaf Communications Ltd., the company that surfaces each election to handle the Liberal advertising, is “to un-distort Trudeau,” according to Jerry Grafstein. He calls Red Leaf “an agency without walls” and it is really nothing more than an umbrella name for the work of about halfa-dozen top Toronto admen (including Vickers & Benson Ltd. President Terry O’Malley, Ronalds-Reynolds and Co. Ltd. President Henry Karpus, and iconoclastic adman Jerry Goodis, who is in charge of the free-time ads). The major decisions are made by Grafstein and

Senator Keith Davey, with whom Grafstem is in contact daily. Like the Tories, the Liberals have two game plans ready and in production. One is the campaign the way it is currently going, aboveboard, tough and fairly impersonal. The backup campaigns—interestingly, the NDP has none—are said to be indecently below-the-belt, in the best American traditions. “We have an alternative scenario that I hope is hypothetical,” says Grafstein. “But if they do attack us, we will massively retaliate.” Assuming the nasty campaign remains in the darkroom, Grafstein’s working plan for the Liberals is to deliver “Trudeau unvarnished. Not Trudeau Manhattan, not even Trudeau on the Rocks. But Trudeau Straight Up.”

In many cases the three masterminds use different phrases to describe the same theory. While Grafstein talks of “snapshots of what he’s actually doing,” Swain refers to “newsmagazine format” and Wolf talks about presenting the “fundamental issues.” The commitment to at least touch upon the things that do matter is worth praising, particularly in light of recent trends in American election advertising. “When you’ve got 30 seconds on television,” says Joe Cerrell, a political consultant who handled Lyndon Johnson and John

F. Kennedy, “I don’t think you have time for any more than a single issue. All you’re trying to do is to get them to remember the name.” The most cynical of all thinking comes from perhaps the most successful, Hal Evry, a Californian who claims a 94-per-cent success rate for his clients, which have included, he says, eight Canadian members of Parliament. (A notable Evry failure was uranium millionaire Stephen Roman’s bid to unseat Liberal Barney Danson, but Evry says Roman “didn’t do what we told him.”) Evry told Maclean's that he considers Canadians 30 years behind the times for wanting to bother with things like shaking hands and knocking on doors and actually being seen. Evry believes deeply in the quick television commercial and would, he says, even simulate campaign travel with a television studio and a facsimile train if the client would permit him. Once the race is on, Evry believes, it is in the hands of the airwaves. His advice to candidates during the meat of the campaign: leave town. “You can’t be misquoted if you don’t say anything.”

Mercifully, Canada will remain 30 years behind the times by Hal Evry’s measure. The American experience has already altered campaigns in this country so they are essentially a leadership race. “The fundamental change that occurred in the late 1950s was a growing emphasis on personality rather than issues,” says Dr. Paul Rutherford, author of The Making of the Canadian Media. “We’ve turned politics into a spectacle. It’s a form of entertainment. It’s a game. When you’re fed Ed Broadbent as Mary Tyler Moore—it’s entertainment.”

To some extent this is true—print, for example, has recently become far more interested in style than content—but there is at least a verbal commitment by the parties to deal with issues this time and to go against most conventional wisdom from the States. And that, coupled with the free-time telecasts and the potential of a debate with all three leaders means that Canadians have not arrived at the same point described by Phyllis Brotman, president of the 200-member Association of American Political Consultants: “The electorate couldn’t care less about the issues.”

But it is interesting to note that Elections Canada, which oversees this monstrosity known as the 1979 General Election, is undertaking its own $1.1million advertising campaign to educate voters about the new boundaries, among other things, and has decided to completely avoid television in favor of radio and newspapers. “We have,” says Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Marc Hamel with a sly smile, “serious messages to get across.”

George Horhota