A rare, but spectacular, example of negative advertising backfiring in an election campaign.
Late in the 1993 federal election campaign, the Progressive Conservatives— seeking to reverse their troubled fortunes — ran a television campaign that sought to exploit voters’ misgivings about the rough-hewn, populist style of Liberal front-runner Jean Chrétien.
The result was a television commercial with still photos stressing the Liberal leader’s crooked mouth (he has suffered from partial facial paralysis since childhood,) and an ominous voice asking “is this a Prime Minister?” and warning that Chrétien would be an international embarrassment.
The ad triggered an unprecedented torrent of public anger and outrage – all of it directed at the hapless PC campaign and the party’s leader, Prime Minister Kim Campbell. The media and the public in general saw the commercial as an attack based on Chrétien’s personal infirmity and, as such, wildly off base. That interpretation was encouraged by Chrétien himself, whose stoic but emotion-inducing response (“this is the face God gave me”) milked the situation for all it was worth. It was a performance for the ages, endearing many Canadians to Chrétien and the Liberals. Even future Conservative PM Stephen Harper would later admit that he was “practically crying” while watching Chrétien’s performance.
PC candidates across the country scrambled to distance themselves from the ad. Yet PC campaign leaders, especially campaign chair (and future Toronto Mayor) John Tory, defended it. Campbell, after hesitating, finally ordered the commercial pulled.
Despite only being on the air for 24 hours, the spot’s impact was massive, sending the the PCs from tailspin to freefall. After nine years in government, the party was already hurt by the unpopularity of the GST, constitutional drama and Mulroney in general. The rise of the Bloc and Reform, combined with an inept PC campaign and self-inflicted wounds like the ad (as well as Campbell’s alleged assertion that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues”) created a “perfect storm” that dealt a historic blow to the PCs. They emerged from the 1993 election with only two seats, the worst defeat for a governing party in Canadian history. Chrétien, channeling his unique brand of Royal Jelly, would quip that “even a Volkswagen has more seats.”
Of course, most negative political advertising succeeds. Voters decry its use, but they (usually) heed its message. Among politicos, “Is this a Prime Minister?” is shorthand for the rare-but-terrifying exception – a political bazooka that fires backwards.
Image: One of the pictures used in the ad (YouTube)