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#ELXN44 — The Campaign Ads That Made Us

August 23, 2021

After a wild summer — and an even wilder year and a half of COVID-19 — we’ve finally reached the season that so many of us here at Proof Strategies love the most: election season. It’s a time when our team’s many former politicos sharpen their rhetorical skills for looming debates — at bar-tops, kitchen tables and TV panels — tell tall tales from campaign trails of yore, and reminisce about battles lost and won.

And there’s no doubt one of the biggest tools in a campaign team’s box of tricks is the video clip. From the time of rotary TV dials to the advent of YouTube and beyond, the election video — when done right — has been a reliable tool for persuading voters, driving a message and reinforcing impressions that may have only briefly fluttered through peoples’ minds until the moment they coalesced on the screen before them.

To celebrate the season, your Proof Strategies team of government relations and public affairs experts has dug into the archives and compiled a highlight reel of favourite clips — the ones that truly stand out (for better or worse), plus a few honourable mentions to boot. We hope you have as much fun reading this list as we did debating it. Enjoy!

THE MOD(ERN) CLUB

Liberal Party of Canada | “Harder to Get Ahead” (2015)

As the third-place challengers in the 2015 election, Trudeau’s Liberals needed a strong narrative to cut through to Canadians. They built their pitch around a notion: that the incumbent Conservatives were making it harder for Canadians to get ahead, and that the Liberals would champion Canada’s middle class. In this ad, they illustrated the argument by showing Trudeau walking the wrong way up an escalator. The creative depiction caught fire, and was even parodied by Rick Mercer. The pitch also resonated with frustrated voters and helped cement Trudeau’s lead — which turned into a staggering 184 seat majority in Parliament.

Conservative Party of Canada | “He Didn’t Come Back for You” (2011)

Before and during the 2011 election, these Conservative ads attacking Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (newly returned to Canada and running to lead it after years abroad) were in constant rotation. They defined Ignatieff to voters and helped set the narrative for the campaign. It was an effective play — and in the end the Liberals were dealt a historic defeat, tumbling to third party status (a first) and delivering Prime Minister Harper the majority government he’d been seeking. 

New Democratic Party | “Hamster” / “Chiens” (2011)

The NDP’s historic 2011 “orange crush” election breakthrough was in large part thanks to voters in one key province: Quebec. The push to tap into La Belle Province’s electorate included a separate set of local ads. These dialogue-free clips blended charming animals and a classic Strauss waltz into an absurd cocktail that skewered status quo politics and made the case for change. But were they memorable? Ask a Québécois dog owner how much howling the second clip — featuring a chorus of yapping pups — triggered during commercial breaks. Our take: winning 103 seats is nothing to bark about.

CANADIAN CLASSICS

Liberal Party of Canada | “The Line” (1988)

This ad from the 1988 federal election — a campaign fought against a backdrop of pitched debate over Canada-U.S. free trade — lodged itself in the memories of many, for good reason. Depicting the dividing border along the 49th parallel being erased from the map by a cocky back-room American negotiator, it effectively tapped into Canadians’ surging anxiety about their dominant neighbour. It’s also credited with helping reduce Prime Minister Mulroney’s caucus from the record majority he’d won in 1984.

Progressive Conservative Party of Canada | “Think Twice” (1993)

This ad didn’t so much attack a party or a position, it essentially just made fun of Jean Chrétien’s face — which had been partly paralyzed after a childhood struggle with Bell’s Palsy. On the hustings, the “little guy from Shawinigan,” used some verbal judo to dismiss it with a flippant, heart wrenching quip: “God gave me a physical defect. […] It’s true that I speak on one side of my mouth — I’m not a Tory, I don’t speak on both sides of my mouth.” Ouch. Needless to say, this was not an effective ad. There were apologies, and it was pulled. In the end, the Progressive Conservatives were dealt the worst loss for a governing party in Canadian history — losing their majority and 154 of their 156 seats.

Liberal Party of Canada | “Soldiers In Our Streets” (2006)

Never officially released to TV, this spot is a landmark for its infamous impact on the Liberals’ own fortunes. Designed to apply pressure to Canadians’ skepticism of the Conservative Party of Canada, the desperation it displayed — and the passing disrespect for members of the Canadian Armed Forces — did not go unnoticed when the clip appeared on the party’s website. Ultimately this one earns distinction not for its effectiveness, but for being legendarily dubious. And though it never aired with paid dollars behind it, it earned enough media attention to set the party back heavily. That late-campaign setback lasted — ending in the election of “Canada’s new government” under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: SOUTHERN STAND-OUTS

Lyndon B. Johnson & Hubert Humphrey | “Daisy” (1964)

Two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis — the closest the world had come to a nuclear war — a cold reality was setting into American voters’ minds: there was no safe haven from attack. For his re-election campaign, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ad team intentionally tapped into this intense fear by depicting the impact a nuclear bomb would have on Daisy, a small child holding a flower. The hugely polarizing ad aired one single time. Even at 57 years old and in black and white, it’s still chilling.

Ronald Reagan & George H.W. Bush | “It’s Morning in America Again” (1984)

There’s little that channeled the optimism of Americans more than President Ronald Reagan. This spot is not only a precise illustration of that — overflowing with visuals of Norman Rockwell iconography brought to life — it’s also considered a landmark in the history of political advertising. On election night, the Reagan/Bush Republican ticket won the largest victory in United States history with 58.8% of the vote and 525 electoral votes (49 of 50 states).

MJ Hegar for Texas | “Doors” (2018)

Clocking in at over three minutes, this clip for a first-time congressional candidate is long. But since it showcases a challenger female Democrat running in an unshakably Republican Texas district, bold is on brand. This clip is a deliberate gamble: it leverages a thoughtful creative idea and teases it out to showcase Hegar’s dramatic story of overcoming barriers. Hegar didn’t flip the seat, but she sure made an impression: the clip racked up over six million views across YouTube and Facebook, and she came within three percent of knocking out the incumbent — the closest fight of her opponent’s congressional career.

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