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Election Advertising: A Primer – What’s Changed? The Rise of Digital.

In this installment of McMillan Vantage’s regular spotlight on the federal election, Vantage Principal Marcella Munro explains how parties employ their advertisements:

Online has become the preferred means of election advertising, as it is for selling just about any kind of product. In the 2019 election, Elections Canada reported the largest parties spent almost $10 million online — the digital ad buy represented 42 per cent of the Liberals’ spend, 40 per cent for the NDP and 33 per cent for Conservatives.

It’s likely to be even higher this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one or all of the parties spent more than 50 per cent of their ad buy on digital.

Like commercial advertisers, parties are going where the voters are. Canadians are online in a big way, a trend that has sped up and deepened due to COVID. In fact, last year cell phones overtook computers as the number one place we get our news and information.

The same way you Google to find a new vacuum and suddenly start seeing more ads for what you searched, the political parties are able to identify what kind of message to deliver to you.

Voters are identified and targeted by specific demographics, by understanding the likes and desires of the audience in detail, and by geography, even down to the postal code. This is known as microtargeting. Party data plus social/search algorithms allow parties to find their pool of accessible voters, and shape the messaging they use to approach them.

Most of the data used is fairly broad (age, gender, etc) but some of the data used for targeting is weirdly specific, like whether you’re interested in Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda.

In many cases, unless you are part of the population targeted with a specific ad, you will not see it. Some ads may never be on the radar of the general public or the media. (You can always, as I sometimes do, nerd out on the Facebook Ad Library to see what they’re up to).

Parties still put money into traditional TV, print, and radio, with the majority of that on TV. Today it’s more useful to think of ads as video, audio, or photo tiles that may also end up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And it is a certainty that any ad you see has been optimized for your phone.

What’s the same? A simplified timeline of how campaigns deploy ads

Like advertising for other products and services, political ads have situated to be in the context of the public conversation to be successful. They must also in short order build a narrative for the party, leader, and campaign that successfully makes the case.

I find it is helpful to think about campaign ads in four buckets:

1/ The positive offer – give them something to vote for.

These ads start at the beginning of a campaign, and continue throughout the writ period. They are the “offer” of the political party, and are meant to reinforce values, brand, and the positioning of the leader and team.

They are important in starting to define the eternal question “what is this election about”. Thus, we get Jagmeet Singh promising to build a better future, Erin O’Toole introducing himself and his plan, and Justin Trudeau celebrating Canadians’ resilience and saying we need to “move forward.”

2/ The attack ad – define your opponent.

The attack or “contrast ad” is a central tool parties use to define the leader or party they have identified as their main competitor. These ads can be focused on the leader, the policy positioning, or an issue that has become a central vote determinant. A great contrast ad will do all three.

You can use attack ads to solidify people to vote for you and/or to try to convince your opponents’ voters to stay home (suppression advertising).

People are more likely to be motivated by a negative message than a positive message. However, attack ads are tricky. If you go too far they can backfire. Many mocked this Conservative attack ad portraying Justin Trudeau as Veruca Salt of Willy Wonka fame. (I believe it probably did what they intended).

Here’s a more typical example from the Conservatives, and from the Liberals. And a 15 second spot for the NDP that is punchy and fun.

3/ The ballot ad – define the key question you want people to vote on.

Later in the campaign, usually around or just after the debates, some parties will do advertising specifically to crystalize the “ballot question.” This may still fit into their idea of “what the election is about” that they started with. It’s more likely, though, that the campaign dynamics will have shifted, and that they have learned through ongoing tracking polling how to adjust this message.

By this point parties will have also narrowed down the key demographics and specific ridings they need to win. As well, there may be slightly different ballot questions in different areas of the country, and especially in Quebec.

A ballot ad can be negative or positive. Here’s a famous Liberal ad from the 1988 Free Trade campaign that tried to define the choice. (It didn’t work). And of course there’s this lyrical gem, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election ad “Morning in America.” (It did).

4/ The momentum ad – get your supporters to the polls.

In the last week of the campaign, and especially in the last five days, it’s time to refocus all efforts on getting out the vote. Ads will shift focus specifically towards committed or likely voters, and usually to a positive message to assure these supporters they are making the “right choice.” Campaigns usually save a good part of their ad spend for this last part of the campaign to ensure they are able to close the deal.

We will see what comes  before September 20. In the meantime, enjoy this 1992 Clinton/Gore momentum spot, and don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

mcmillan vantage policy group
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