Anyone watching the new Conservative party attack ad aimed at the new Liberal
leader, Justin Trudeau, might well wonder why we should permit such deliberately
misleading claims to be made about a politician when we prohibit it in product and
Surely the democratic process deserves at least as much protection as the fortunes
of Coke® and Pepsi®, Tide® and Sunlight®.
Like most commercial advertising on television, attack ads are designed, researched,
produced, and focus group-tested to appeal not to intelligence, but to emotion.
Quotes are pulled out of context. Dramatic video effects and music amplify sneering,
cynical, scripts read by voice-of-doom actors trained in the movie trailer business.
Research indicates that attack ads succeed because most people who see them on
television are only marginally aware of what’s going on in politics, and only half-
watching the screen. Impressions lodged in their subconscious minds by repeated
exposure to this form of propaganda have a good chance at being a decisive
influence in their eventual (half thought-out) voting decisions.
The ads that hamstrung the leadership careers of Michael Ignatieff and Stephan
Dion vilified both as effete academics, either ignorant of or unconcerned about the
issues facing “ordinary Canadians.” The sub-text was that they weren’t “real men,” in
the Stephen Harper mold. The ads challenged their masculinity.
A similar tactic is being used in the case of Trudeau. The ad released by
Conservatives just hours after his election as Liberal Party leader doesn’t just
question his political maturity, it challenges his masculinity by making him appear
childish, and even a little gay. (Remember, the “gay” slur was used against his father
in his time as well, though to little effect in most of the country.)
This is a disgusting and morally offensive way for any party to try to win political
In the world of commerce, media campaigns that try to build up a product by tearing
down its competition are referred to as comparative advertising, and there are both
laws and informal industry standards to regulate them.
Section 52 of the Competition Act defines false or misleading advertising as
constituting a criminal offence if: (1) the representation was false or misleading
when consideration is given to the general impression conveyed as well as the
literal meaning; (2) the representation could influence a consumer to buy or use
the product or service advertised; (3) the representation was made knowingly or
recklessly, and; (4) the representation was made to the public.
The Canadian Advertising Standards Council guidelines for comparative advertising
are even more comprehensive and restrictive, stating in part that: “Other products
or services must not be unfairly discredited or disparaged through the general
impression conveyed by an advertisement.
“Advertisements should avoid visual imagery that might leave an unwarranted
negative general impression of other products or services.”
As an example of unfair and therefore prohibited representations of competitors’
products the standards cite images of “a consumer tasting the other product and
grimacing to indicate dislike or disgust.”
According to the Council, any such comparisons must be “fair and factual,” and
“must not create an unsupportable negative general impression of the compared-to
product or service beyond the factual comparison being made.”
Maybe it’s time for the CRTC to take a closer look at the destructive impact attack
ads are having on our democratic institutions.
It should do so bearing in mind that our constitutional press freedom guarantees
are designed, not to protect publishers and advertisers, but to ensure that the public
is provided with the full, fair and complete information it needs to make political
Surely the dissemination of propaganda of the kind represented by political attack
ads does not merit protection in this context, and ought to be regulated.