The NDP ad’s Real Message

(Note this article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times in July.)

When analyzing the strategy behind a political ad, it’s always a good idea to peel back its outer layers and spend some time poking around its inner entrails.

OK that’s icky.

Let me be a little less poetic and say that sometimes a political ad’s message isn’t as straightforward as it might seem; sometimes the true strategic intention of an ad is camouflaged.

I’m bringing this up right now because I believe the true intention of a recent NDP ad is actually hidden from plain sight.

In case you’ve missed it, the NDP ad I’m referring to is an online video that shines an unflattering spotlight on the Conservative government’s alleged misdeeds, scandals and legal problems.

It’s far from subtle.

In fact, it features ominous background music; it has the words “guilty of election fraud,” and “sent to jail” stamped in big red letters over photos of Conservative politicians and operatives, and itspiece de resistance is a video of former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro being led off to jail in handcuffs.

As marketing expert Kerry McKibbin, who analyzed the ad for the CBC, noted, “If you squint for a moment, it could appear similar to an advertisement for a documentary about a Mafia crime family”.

In short, it’s a nasty attack ad.

Now most observers are taking this ad’s message at face value. The NDP, they say, is reminding Canadians about how the Conservatives have a poor record when it comes to integrity and should therefore be voted out of office.

In other words, it’s seen as just an anti-Conservative ad, plain and simple.

McKibbin, for instance, sees the ad this way, arguing it “contests the Tories’ message that they are the only party capable of managing the public purse, in effect flipping that claim on its head. And it undercuts Harper’s tough-on-crime image by passing judgment on people he appointed or with whom he is affiliated.”

That certainly makes sense on a superficial level of analysis.

Yet, let’s see what happens if we breakdown the NDP’s strategy a bit more, factoring in the tactical challenges facing the party and taking into account the political context that surrounds the ad.

Consider, first of all, that this ad is apparently only appearing in social media, meaning it won’t be exposed to a mass audience.

Next, consider that the NDP released this ad in the middle of July, when a lot of Canadians are too busy enjoying the summer to pay attention to politics.

These are both clues which suggest the NDP’s purpose in this ad is to target, not the general public, but rather a specific subset of the general public.

But what subset?

Well I’d say the NDP is targeting those progressive voters out there who still can’t decide between supporting NDP leader Thomas Mulcair or Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

That just stands to reason since if the NDP is going to win the next election it’s going to need the support of those wavering progressives.

So, how does the NDP win them over?

Well, one sure-fire way would be for the NDP to show progressives in no uncertain terms, that Mulcair is a leader who is tough enough to take on Prime Minister Stephen Harper and win.

And that’s the true strategy underpinning that NDP attack ad.

It’s not really about bashing the Conservatives, it’s about sending a signal to progressive voters, assuring them that if the next election turns into an attack ad brawl, Mulcair will fight back and give as good as he gets.

To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan: The NDP attack ad is the message.

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