The 5 Canadian Political TV Ads that Changed History

Aug 28, 2017

TV spots are a mainstay of any effective political campaign. Canadians have a reputation, unfairly I think, for—how shall I put this? Blandness, when it comes to our politics.

True, we’re not as controversial as our neighbors to the south, but we do have our fair share of interesting, and in some cases truly nasty political ads.

Our methodology for ranking these spots is pretty straightforward: their effectiveness and their ability to convey a message compellingly. Our second criterion is obviously pretty subjective, but oh well, feel free to disagree with us!

5. “Most Powerful Attack Ad Ever!”

Most Powerful Attack Ad Ever!” or “Spitbomb” doesn’t technically qualify as a TV ad since it didn’t actually air on TV. Adbusters, who independently crowdfunded it, purchased eleven spots during primetime on CBC just a week before the October 19th federal election in 2015.

Alas “Spitbomb” didn’t have the mandatory third-party wording, and it wasn’t approved by the Television Bureau of Canada’s telecaster services—so it stayed digital. But that didn’t stop it from going viral.

So why’s it here, then? For one, it’s a good example of how third-parties are using the digital space to influence elections. Finally, while there’s oodles of cringeworthiness here, it definitely tapped into the dissatisfaction lots of Canadians had with where their country was headed back in 2015.

Suffice it to say, Stephen Harper didn’t get his fourth-consecutive parliament. Whether or not the so-called “Most Powerful Attack Ad Ever!” had something to do with swinging the vote is almost impossible to determine.

4. The “Face Ad”

Ouch. This one’s tough to watch. The notorious “Face Ad” is one of the most infamous in the history of Canadian political advertising—a true exemplar of a dirty attack ad if ever there was one.

The “Face Ad” ran in 1993 as part Kim Campbell’s bid for parliament and it did not go over well with Canadians. Actually, it backfired. Horribly.

The next day, after the spot aired, Jean Chretien responded to his adversary’s below-the-belt attack, echoing the sentiments of Canadians across the country.

“The conservative party reached a new low. They tried to make fun of the way I look.”

Having suffered Bell’s palsy as a child, Chretien was referring to the unflattering close-ups the Progressive Conservatives used for their spot, which didn’t even mention him by name and seemed to imply that he was unfit, as far as his appearances were concerned, to represent Canada on the international stage.

This ad wasn’t successful—not by a longshot, as the Liberals ended up winning the federal election. That said, it is Canada’s most notorious political TV spot, which is why it’s included here. More than that, it’s a primer on what not to do if you’re running an attack ad. Lastly, the ad left us with one of Chretien’s more memorable soundbites.

“It’s true, I speak out of one side of my mouth. I’m not a Tory, I don’t speak out of both sides of my mouth.”

3. “Just Visiting”

If anyone perfected the attack ad, it was Stephen Harper. He laid waste to a Liberal party plagued by scandal, infighting and weak leadership. This is why numbers two and three belong to him and him alone.

“Just Visiting” wasn’t just effective, it was ruthless.

In the aftermath of the Sponsorship Scandal, the Liberal Party was a mere shadow of its former self. Things couldn’t get any worse for them. At least, so they thought.

In the 2011 federal election, Liberals won the fewest seats in the history of their party. Meanwhile, the Conservatives shifted to a majority government. “Iggy” as he was affectionately called by his fans couldn’t even eke out a win in his own riding. A true low point.

“Just Visiting” worked because it emphasized just how out of touch the Liberals had become and no figure embodied that disconnect more than their leader, Michael Ignatieff. Unsurprisingly, the jet-setting intellectual who'd lived abroad didn’t resonate with Canadians and because the Liberals didn’t mount a counter ad, the message had real staying power.

2. “Not a Leader”

By most accounts, Stephane Dion inherited a mess when he became Leader of the Opposition. The Conservatives, like hungry sharks prowling the shallows, could smell blood. Leading up to the 40th Canadian General Election, they ran their “Not a Leader” campaign, an attack ad with teeth.

The premise of the spot: that Stephane Dion’s Liberals weren’t just incompetent; but childish, too. Self-aggrandizing, entitled, petulant… The ads articulated a vision of a party in disarray without the leadership to correct its course, let alone lead the country through one of its largest recessions. In 2008, the Conservative Party won their second-consecutive minority government.

1. “Channel Change”

“Channel Change” was a counter ad and it worked because it changed the conversation. Leading up to the 2015 general election, the Conservatives ran a series of three attack ads. You’ll remember them as the “He’s in Way Over His Head” spots.

They sought to strip Trudeau of all credibility by going after him personally instead of engaging Canadians on matters of policy. First, by belittling his professional qualifications (and trashing teachers Canada-wide). Finally, by tying him to his father and suggesting that he’d won the Liberal nomination through nepotism, not on his own merits. Classic attack ad.

By addressing the ads head-on, Trudeau moved beyond his opponent's personal attacks and began to address some of the bigger issues Canadians' were grappling with.  In many ways, Trudeau's strategy surprised Canadians, and he exceeded their expectations. The Conservatives followed up with a less aggressive campaign, “He’s Just Not Ready”, but by then it was too late.

Trudeau found success by taking a cue from Obama’s campaign playbook. His messaging became about optimism and hope, sentiments that resonated with Canadians and saw the Liberals win a majority government in the 42nd Canadian General Election.

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