Are attack ads really bad for politics?

Political attack ads call all of politics into disrepute, ultimately undermining trust in all politicians and eroding citizens’ confidence that democracy is the best system for choosing our leaders,” writes Peter Loewen in the Toronto Star this wek.

On the other side, “what voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how,” writes Rick Salutin. “It’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart. Ads are just one way of doing that.”  .


Bad for politics? Attack ads are politics in our system, more or less. We have an adversarial politics, just as we have an adversarial legal system. So there’s a loyal opposition, with the emphasis on opposing. Scrapping attack ads would be like eliminating cross-examinations in court.

Different systems are surely possible. Some countries have “neutral” judicial bodies that investigate and judge crimes. We have places in Canada — Nunavut or the Northwest Territories — that operate on consensus politics without an opposition, the way municipalities are supposed to.

But there’s something to be said for attack strategies in politics. Long ago I studied with a Marxist, Herbert Marcuse, who called his book, “One-Dimensional Man,” an “exercise in the power of negative thinking.” That itself was an attack on a sappy bestseller of the time called “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

It’s too easy in politics to burble on positively, making promises. What voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how. They often say that their vote comes down to choosing the least worst option. So it’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart.

Ads are just one way of doing that, and they should certainly be regulated. But the plus is that we’ve all seen so many ads, essentially since birth, that we can be judgmental ourselves, and learn things even from dubious cases.

Take the stupid Willy Wonka ad that Conservatives put out before the last federal campaign, with Justin Trudeau’s face ineptly superimposed on a film character. It was like saying, “If we can’t even make a competent ad, why would you trust us to run Canada?” Their own MPs were embarrassed and it got pulled.

Or take the current flood of ads about Ontario’s coming election.

The PCs are running a radio ad of Doug Ford saying, “I hear it all the time, politicians are famous for finding reasons to say no. That’s not me … we are the party saying Yes.”

My first thought was: what a weird assertion, that I’m the Yes man. Who said you weren’t? Oh wait, there are long lists of things he cut, even during the pandemic. (Though he does say Yes to his developer buddies on building Hwy. 413, where they own big plots of land along the way.)

In effect, he’s become his own attack ad against himself. So this week, when he told immigrants not to come to Ontario to rip off “the dole,” you think, that doesn’t sound very Yessy. Or last week: “Folks, I’m gonna tell you something, the worst place you can give your money is to the government.” That’s a pretty big No from Mr. Yes.

The NDP have dropped a pile of ads against Ford and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. No one who knows them will be surprised that the emotion in the anti-Liberal ads is fiercer than the anti-Ford ones, though Del Duca’s a minuscule player in the legislature — without even a seat — and apparently no money for ads. The NDP have always hated Liberals for usurping what they see as their rightful place as progressive leaders. It’s only human; most of us have been there.

The ads drip with sarcasm and are voiced by what sounds to me like an actor directed to personify a worker. The result reads to me like a middle class actor’s notion of straight-talking workers. It rings like a caricature. The music under it is arch and cute, like “Only Murders in the Building.” The NDP’s always had a problem with a sense of humour. It doesn’t have one but doesn’t know it.

The scripts are worse. They tell people what they should feel: Del Duca is “back for power, not for you.” What does that mean? If you’re trying to make up your mind, it gives you no help. My own experience writing for workers in, say, leaflets for union drives or strikes, is that they want information that’s specific (but concise), not attitudes. Give them info; they’ll provide opinions.

Del Duca’s response, by the way, to those attacks is to say something positive about the other leaders. It’s often smart to march in the other direction.

I’ve run out of space here but I must say, now that I’ve started reacting to these angry, hostile, attack ads, that it’s lots of fun. Keep them coming!


Accedes a la nota completa y a la argumentación de Peter Loewen en The Saturday Debate del Toronto Star con un click aquí:

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[