Alberta political TV ad battle: Round 1 to the Wildrose Party

| December 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

David J. Climenhaga

by David J. Climenhaga

Yesterday, Alberta’s mighty Tory dynasty released its first TV ad of the 2012 election season.

Whether or not it was intended as a riposte to the two 30-second TV spots released by the Wildrose Party last week, it is bound to be seen that way.

Put under that spotlight, it’s obvious the Wildrose Party got more bang for its advertising bucks than the Conservatives did.

Maybe this says that smaller is more flexible. Maybe it says, as Avis used to, that when you’re only No. 2 (or No. 3 if you go by the Citizen Society Research Lab poll’s assessment of the Wildrose position in voters’ hearts) you have to try harder. Maybe it just says the Wildrosers’ managed to hire a better ad agency.

Whatever, as with the first Wildrose ads, we can see the Progressive Conservative government’s initial election strategy emerging in this 30-second spot.

First, the party will emphasize the engaging and new Ms. Redford and downplay the tired and tiresome Alberta Tory brand associated with Ed Stelmach, Ron Liepert, Gary Mar, Ralph Klein, Steve West, Don Getty and all the rest of those old and well-off males stretching back in a cranky line to the Prophet Peter Lougheed wandering out of the wilderness just after the late Jurassic period.

It’s significant in this regard that the word Conservative (or for that matter, “progressive,” or “Tory”) never appears in this ad, either in the voice-over or images.

Second, and here’s a prediction, the Tories are going to go positive – at least as long as their polling numbers hold.

Right now in every serious poll the Conservatives under Ms. Redford hold a commanding lead. Their ads will remain relentlessly positive until that changes. If it does, of course, they’ll go negative with a vengeance, as any governing party would in this Americanized day and age.

But when a party goes negative, it has to understand that some of the smear rubs off on it too. There’s no need for the Tories to take that risk now when they’re polling in the vicinity of 60 per cent. Moreover, like the Wildrose strategy, don’t imagine that you’ll ever see a negative word pass Ms. Redford’s lips. As with Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, the leader is for positive messages and another voice will be used for negativity.

It’s interesting that the two parties of the rampant oil industry and market fundamentalist doctrine have chosen in these ads the colours of the social democratic NDP (the Conservatives) and the environmentally sensitive Greens (the Wildrose). To me, this suggests that the parties of the right have figured out – even if the rest of us haven’t quite yet – that the time is upon us when progressive parties can push policies they actually believe in, like fair taxation and a tough line on the environment, instead of the same old far-right claptrap we get from the parties of the right.

Regardless, getting back to that Tory advert, I guess we have to give Ms. Redford points appearing in her own kitchen with her own family, although I’ve got to say her hubby looked a bit like a deer in the headlights wandering around his dinette at 7 in the morning wearing a nice blazer with his hair all combed.

It may be just me, but I also wondered if there was a sly little social conservative dig in this segment: “Hey, Ms. Smith! Why no kids in your kitchen!?” Probably not, though…

But the actual message – voiced by Ms. Redford herself – is sloppy at best, and at times bordering on plain weird. I know the Tories want to emphasize nothing, instead encouraging us to merely feel good about the future. (As opposed to the opposition, which wants to focus in like a laser on policies they know the public has been unhappy about.) But what’s with telling us – or asking us, whatever the case may be – that “the most important thing that I think about is every day when moms and dads wake up across this province, what are they thinking about on a daily basis?”

Say what?

Notice that Ms. Redford commits to nothing at all, unless you count “they wanna know they’re not going to have debt” as a promise. But then, that’s the logical thing to do when you’re campaigning from far in the front, I guess. That way you can do anything when you win, and no one can call you a flip-flopper.

Regardless, whatever it is that moms and dads all across this province wanna know when they wake up, it’s most likely nothing to do with provincial debt or government policy. More likely it’s, “Did I remember to buy enough freakin’ coffee?”

The kitchen scene is followed by images of Ms. Redford speaking earnestly with a variety of pleasant looking citizens. That’s when the portentous male voice speaks the message fragments the Conservatives really want us to take away: “For a stronger Alberta. For a better quality of life. Premier Alison Redford. Making smart choices.”

Now, I’ve bought a lot of advertising for my various employers over the years, and I can tell you with confidence that it is possible send an ad agency back to rewrite a sentence to ensure it makes sense.

That said, I’m sure both parties focus-grouped these ads within an inch of their lives. And I recognize that the job the Wildrose Party was trying to do is easier on its face. Nevertheless, the Wildrose education policy advertisement is a vastly superior piece of work, and that party’s negative ad avoids some of the blowback problem associated with attack advertising by using a light touch.

This first Tory ad is just not going to be as effective with its viewers.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the advertising in this election campaign is going to be done by these two right-wing parties for the simple reason that TV ads are expensive and they’re the ones with the big corporate bucks to spend.

In our not-very-democratic system of democracy, parties like the NDP, which have a lot of supporters for its people-centred platform, don’t have the corporate funds to saturate the TV markets the way deep-pocketed Tories and Wildrosers can.

When the NDP and Liberal ads come – if they do at all – they’re going to have to be really good, because they’re going to be too expensive to replace or run for long.

By contrast, Conservative pockets are deep enough they can try again if this ad doesn’t work out. They should be thinking seriously about doing just that, and trying harder next time.

The first round of Alberta’s TV election-ad battle clearly goes to the Wildrose Party.

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