Heroes, Fools, and Knaves: Tracking Federal Election Ads

I am using the federal election campaign to do research about the role of narrative in political advertising. With the help of a research assistant, I am preserving and coding all the ads posted by the three major parties. As of the end of September, we have 27 Conservative, 51 Liberal, and 31 NDP ads. The ads, many of which have appeared on television, are posted on the parties’ YouTube channels. It is important to do this in the moment because most of the ads will be taken down as soon as the election has been held. Some ads – for example a Conservative attack on Justin Trudeau’s position on ISIS accompanied by execution porn and a sound-track of chanting in Arabic – have been taken down during the campaign.

We are coding for both the story material and the way it is shaped into a narrative intended to persuade. This involves characteristics such as the events referred to, protagonist, choice of narrator, choice of people appearing in the ad, use of images, use of music, YouTube view count, and nature of comments (if not disabled by the political party). We consider the view count as an indication of the ad’s effectiveness.

This research is very much in progress, so my findings are only preliminary. I will be giving a presentation next week at the University of Regina about this research. I’m finding that virtually every ad mentions a party leader. Ads promoting a party are almost always narrated by its leader. On the other hand, attack ads are almost always narrated by a voice of God or by carefully-chosen voters (or actors representing voters), such as the diverse members of the fictional hiring committee in the Conservatives’ ads attacking Justin Trudeau.

The title “heroes, fools, and knaves” refers to the fables at work in the ads. The heroic fable extols a party leader’s virtues and shows how he either has saved, or would save, Canada from adversity. The attack ads portray an opposing party leader as either a fool or a knave. A fool is either misguided or inexperienced; either way, Canada will suffer if he is elected. A knave – a much more serious accusation – is either corrupt or dishonest, and is in politics for self-enrichment. Similar to the case of the fool, the country would suffer. The Conservatives, who have made attack ads their forte, have portrayed Michael Ignatieff as knave and Justin Trudeau as fool. They have put Tom Mulcair in the crosshairs only recently, usually portraying him as a knave.

The election campaign has shown a number of responses to attack ads. These have included repeating the attack and then refuting or redirecting it (political jiu jitsu), replaying the ad with a soundtrack that presents the opposite message (satire), or turning the ad back upon the original attacker. An example of the latter is the NDP ad portraying a personnel committee conducting a performance review of Stephen Harper and concluding that “it’s time to let him go.”

I will have much more to say about the use of narrative in election ads towards the end of the campaign and in reflecting on the ultimate outcome.

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