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Advertising in the 1993 Federal Election

By Soderlund, Walter C. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Advertising in the 1993 Federal Election


Soderlund, Walter C., Canadian Parliamentary Review


This article looks at the role of political advertising in the strategies of the four political parties which contested the 1993 federal election in English-speaking Canada. Research for this paper was supported by a Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada grant to a team of scholars at Laval University and the University of Windsor who are preparing a major study on political advertising in the 1993 election.

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If mass media provide the stage upon which modern elections increasingly are contested, it is important to note that paid political advertising is but one of many means whereby political messages are transmitted across media channels to prospective voters. "Earned" coverage on national network television news is perhaps the most important way mass media affects the outcome of a campaign. In Canada, "leader tours" across the country are organized to maximize media coverage in the sense that "something" must be perceived to be happening. Speeches are crafted and interesting photo venues are set up to ensure that a leader will get his or her fair share of time. For parties without large campaign budgets, this "free" media coverage is vital to getting their message to voters, and even the most well financed party cannot afford to overlook the advantages of positive news coverage and the obvious perils of its opposite.

Another way in which media transmit political messages during a campaign is through televised leader debates. Not only are the debates themselves watched by a large number of voters, they can develop second lives, as key dramatic encounters in debates are replayed in news stories and used to partisan advantage in paid party political advertising.

A relatively new development in Canadian elections is the sponsorship of polls by media organizations. Polls, of course, highlight the "horse race" aspects of a campaign, and if one party is doing particularly poorly, or appears to be gaining momentum, this is reported as hard news. In that these polls constitute news that is manufactured and paid for by media outlets, their results are virtually guaranteed to get significant media coverage. There is much uncertainty involved in these types of media coverage, and uncertainty is not a trait highly valued by those who run major national campaigns.

Paid political advertising is advantageous precisely because it gives campaign professionals seemingly complete control over the message that is transmitted: the content of the message, how many times a particular message will be transmitted, to what types of audiences and at what times of the day or night.

This paper argues the seeming advantage of paid political advertising has been to some degree diminished. In recent elections, political ads themselves have become a topic of media scrutiny and thus commentary on their honesty, taste, and effectiveness, inevitably intrude on how they will be evaluated by viewers.

The Progressive Conservative Party Strategy

Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1984 based on an unlikely coalition of Quebec nationalism and Western alienation, complemented by traditional Tory support in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. After nine years of Mulroney leadership, this coalition had unravelled and in 1992, PC fortunes fell to a low point with the party's share of the potential vote ranging between 11 and 22 percent. (1) There were many reasons for this situation and with an election looming on horizon, the Party breathed a collective sigh of relief when, in February 1993, Mr. Mulroney announced his retirement coincident with the choice of a new leader.

The new leader, elected in June 1993, was Kim Campbell, who, became the first female Prime Minister of the country. She presented a new and attractive face to Canadian voters and over the Summer, with fresh leadership in place, the party's fortunes in the polls rebounded to where PC support stood at 32 percent as opposed to the Liberals' 36 percent in August 1993.

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