Why Conservatives’ anti-Trudeau attack ads may be helping the Liberals

Why Conservatives’ anti-Trudeau attack ads may be helping the Liberals

There are more signs the Conservatives could be wasting their money airing attack ads directed at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

A poll released Friday suggests the ads, which end with the tag line "he's in over his head," are having the opposite effect from the message the party was trying to deliver.

According to the Toronto Star, the Forum Research poll of almost 1,600 people surveyed at the end of last month found 47 per cent of those who'd seen the ads said they'd be more likely to vote Liberal, compared with 20 per cent who leaned Conservative and 17 per cent NDP.

More ominously for the Tories, the poll found 22 per cent of respondents who'd previously voted for the governing Conservatives say the ads make them likely to vote Liberal.

The ads, which begun running in some form since Trudeau became leader a year ago, are intended to deliver one message: Trudeau is a shallow, intellectual lightweight not equipped to lead the country.

[ Related: Tories release another Justin Trudeau attack ad ]

But the Forum poll leaves Trudeau, 42, where he's been since becoming leader, as the top choice for prime minister, followed by Stephen Harper, with the NDP's Tom Mulcair, leader of the official Opposition, a distant third.

“These negative ads suggesting the Liberal leader is inexperienced backfired the last time they were aired, and they’re backfiring again,” Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff said in a statement, according to the Star.

The 15-second anti-Trudeau ads are a particularly blunt instrument, the crude editing of making it clear Trudeau's brief utterances are have been cut out of something in a larger context.

Compare them to this negative ad from the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign that helped incumbent Lyndon Johnson crush Rupublican Barry Goldwater by playing on public perceptions of silver-haired senator as a hawk, all too ready to launch a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

The famous ad, which never mentions Goldwater, is hard-hitting but seems almost subtle compared with the crude Conservative blurbs.

Despite the poll results, don't expect the Conservatives to put this tool back in the box. Personal attack ads helped unseat Trudeau's two predecessors.

In Michael Ignatieff's case, out-of-context clips were used to reinforce the Tories' message that the brainy author, son of a Lester B. Pearson-era cabinet minister, was out of touch with Canadian society because he'd spent much of his adult life in Britain and the United States.

Ignatieff, who built a career as a public intellectual, did indeed seem aloof, simply not connecting with voters. The attack ads simply reinforced the impression.

The Conservative attack machine did a similar job on Ignatieff's predecessor, Stephane Dion, who replaced Paul Martin after the Liberals lost the 2006 election.

The geeky Dion was portrayed as a ditherer, a tax grabber (because he supported a carbon tax) and, worst of all, a weak person, the Ottawa Citizen noted after the Tories won re-election in 2008.

"Not worth the risk," was that year's Conservative catch phrase, along with "not a leader."

Again, the ads helped reinforce some nagging doubts about Dion among voters. Dion, who'd been photographed sometimes with backpack slung over one shoulder, looked more like an assistant university professor than a prime minister.

[ Related: Tories’ latest attack ad on Mulcair falls short of the mark ]

The conventional wisdom is that the public abhors attack ads but political parties use them because they seem to work.

“Even though voters say they don’t like negative campaigning, the ads are effective,” CNN's Jack Cafferty observed in assessing the huge sums spent by both sides in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, according to a post on IVN. “Experts say negative ads tap into emotions like anxiety, fear and disgust that can push a voter away from a candidate.”

So, the purpose of attack ads is not necessarily to win someone over but to instill doubt. Taglines such as "not worth the risk" and "he's in over his head" are meant to become ear worms that, it's hoped, will act on voters' subconscious as the campaign progresses.

The next election is a year away, but the Conservatives' war chest is big enough that it can afford to hammer home its message year-round, with a fresh array of ads in readiness when the writ is dropped.

But the Forum poll suggests some voters are not just tuning out the ads, they're cheesed off enough by them to vote maybe for the ads' target.