Best ad strategies for winning the Ontario election

While most Ontarians are enjoying the first beautiful days of spring after what seems like an especially long and dark winter, the campaign teams of Ontario’s political parties are squirrelled away in dark editing suites putting their advertising campaigns together.

The pressure is on. And for good reason.

It is generally conceded in modern elections that, after the performance of the leader, advertising — whether mainstream or digital — can make the winning difference.

It is also well documented that although people routinely tell pollsters how much they hate so-called “negative” — I prefer the term comparative — advertising, it works. Like a charm. When executed effectively.

So just what are the campaigns thinking about when it comes to the messages they want to drive through advertising? And what are some of the pitfalls they should seek to avoid?

Let’s start with Ontario’s New Democrats. If there is an exception to every rule, then Andrea Horwath is the exception to the rule that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Despite being the leader for nine years, she is still unknown to many Ontarians.

Her campaign’s advertising should focus on reintroducing her to the voter as the thoughtful, safe hand of change. Her message, repeated frequently, should be that you can have change that’s compassionate and sensible. In short, a 2018 version of that sage old Bill Davis adage that in Ontario “bland works.”

All of her spend should be on positive messaging. If she is clever, she will leave the fisticuffs to the others.

The Liberals have some tougher decisions to make. Their advertising has four objectives: remind Ontarians of the progress the province has made under their leadership; prove that the desire for change can be met by the Liberals themselves with a reinvigorated platform; demonstrate that Doug Ford’s values are not Ontario’s values; convince Ontarians that Ford has not fully declared his agenda.

In doing this, they face a significant strategic challenge and that, simply put, is their length of time in office and current standing in the polls.

After 15 years in power voters will be skeptical that the Liberals seem to all of a sudden have got religion.

To many, the response to a number of the new Liberal proposals — especially the entitlement programs — will be “If these are such great ideas, what took you so long?”

And with near record-low approval ratings for both the party and the premier, messages around Ford’s unsuitability for office and fears of an undeclared agenda will be rejected as desperation tactics.

The PC’s choices are, like those of the NDP, quite straightforward.

First and foremost, the advertising needs to round out what voters think of Doug Ford and show him to be more than Rob Ford the second.

Self deprecating humour that doesn’t have him taking himself too seriously, connects with those who self-identify as his base and delivers on his promise to be a refreshing change from the typical politician would be a great start.

But ads that are all puppies and sunshine will not be enough. The PCs must run tough ads that remind the electorate why they are fed up with the Liberals.

Many at PC campaign headquarters will be arguing against such ads. Their argument will be that “with the lead we have, why take risks with upsetting people? Many voters already think Doug is a bully and that’s something we don’t need to reinforce.”

In my view, this is wrong-headed thinking. It would be a mistake for the Tories not to play back to the voter messages that reinforce the voters’ decision to abandon the Liberals and find a home, for this election at least, with the PCs.

Not necessarily a popular decision but an effective one to be sure.

A final note on the tactics of advertising:

  • Production values don’t matter. Your slogan isn’t “good lighting for a better Ontario.”
  • Minimize production costs.
  • Save money for buying advertising time and space.
  • Make visual clichés your friend.
  • And at all costs don’t let your ad agencies have dreams of winning awards in their heads.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

(Published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, April 29)