Heroic Harper or Devious Stephen?

Now that the election has been called, here is my narratological analysis of the latest Conservative and Liberal TV ads about Stephen Harper. The key hypothesis of narratological analysis is that a message is more convincing if it presents a coherent narrative, namely a series of events unfolding over time. As the campaign itself unfolds, we will see which messages resonate most with the electorate.

The Conservatives’ is a feel-good ad and the Liberals’ an attack ad. Each will appeal to the party’s core supporters and alienate the other party’s. The question is how they will be perceived by those who are currently undecided.

The Conservative ad, titled simply “Stephen Harper” is available at conservative.ca on the TV ads page. It runs for a minute, is narrated by Harper himself, and presents 19 full-colour images. The first 6 images are patriotic: the flag, a flypast over Parliament Hill, a child with a face-paint maple leaf, an elderly ethnic couple, the eternal flame on Parliament Hill, and finally two fighters jets escorting a passenger jet.

The next 11 images are of Harper, grouped into four consecutive themes:

• As patriot (visiting war memorials in images 7 and 9),

• at work (in his office in image 8, visiting a construction site in image 10 and a factory in image 11),

• as international statesman (at the G20 summit in image 12, with Mexican President Felipe Calderon – a curious choice, because even if Obama and Berlusconi are too controversial, Sarkozy, Merkel, or Cameron are higher profile – in image 13, and waving as he boards his jet in Korea in image 14)

• as family guy, with his wife and kids (image 15), with a child (image 16), and playing the piano at home (image 17).

The penultimate image is a crowd cheering, and the last image Harper again with the Conservative slogan “here for Canada” superimposed.

This ad fits perfectly into the heroic national renewal-protagonist growth quadrant of the public management narrative that I presented in my post of March 7. Harper’s words begins in synch with the patriotic images (“we’re lucky to live in Canada … a country that is a symbol of freedom, democracy, and opportunity”). Then his national renewal narrative – “we’ve been through a lot these past couple of years; the whole world has, but we’re doing it our way, the Canadian way … today our country is walking taller, standing prouder, getting stronger” – is blended with the images (10 and 11) of him in hardhat overseeing economic renewal, and the images of his personal progression to international statesman (12, 13, and 14).

The final part of the speech – “our best days are yet to come, together as Canadians let’s strengthen our country, and make it better for families, and ensure our kids have more opportunities than we did” – and the family images (15, 16, and 17) take the viewer back down from the lofty plane of international statesmanship to the family guy and the pitch to the Conservatives’ core constituency.

Conclusion: it’s a very carefully-crafted ad, not only combining patriotic appeal and messages aimed at the Conservatives’ target voters, but doing it within a coherent story. However, its exploitation of patriotic sentiment for a partisan political purpose could alienate some voters if they consider it shameless exploitation.

The Liberal ad, entitled, “Abuse of Power,” ran as a banner on Liberal.ca last week and is now available under Liberal Party of Canada on YouTube. It is 30 seconds long and narrated by an anonymous and urgent, even panicky, female voice. For images there are six black-and-white newspaper stories about Conservative abuses, also containing unflattering photos of Harper. The narrator begins with the words, “Stephen Harper: he’s gone too far” over Harper’s silhouette. It then goes quickly through four episodes of abuse of power: refusing to fire Minister Oda for misleading Parliament, shrugging off charges that could lead to jail time against his inner circle for breaking election laws, shutting down Parliament (prorogation), and relabeling the Government of Canada the Harper Government.

The ad then displays the words Abuse, Deceit, and Contempt, each accompanied by the bang of a gavel. These are superimposed over a particularly nasty image of Harper, looking like a cross between a carnival huckster and a party boss (Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men). The narrator concludes “Harper thinks he’s above the law,” and provocatively asks “is this your Canada or Harper’s?”

The ad is without doubt a hard-hitting critique of the Harper government along the lines of what the Liberals have long signaled would be a major component of their election messaging. The question is whether undecided voters will shrug it off as being about inside baseball on Parliament Hill, with no impact on their daily lives.

It also lacks a story line. It doesn’t put this abuse of power in any historical perspective. There are two story lines the ad might have used. The first is “the leopard doesn’t change his spots” story, digging up some historical evidence that Harper has always been a hyper-partisan, so that having gone too far now is simply indicative of the man’s basic character from way back.

The second is the “power corrupts” story. The ad could have reminded the viewer of the Conservative’s vaunted Accountability Act, and then showed how Harper’s behavior over the last few years has contradicted the act, rendering him a hypocrite.

The ad criticizes Harper’s behavior; an ad with a stronger story line would criticize his character. It may be that the Liberals don’t want to go this far, but the Conservative attack ads about Michael Ignatieff attack his character.

In my next post, I will look for the narratives contained in the Liberal and Conservative ads about Michael Ignatieff.

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