Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner -  John F. Kennedy

Even though Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, his almost mystical status as a legendary leader continues to survive, as evidenced by the massive coverage networks both in Canada and in the United States dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of his untimely death. Mind you, perhaps as the boomer generation fades away, so too will Kennedy's aura.

Loser  - Prime Minister Stephen Harper

For a while there it looked like the Senate scandal, which had been bubbling away for 6 months or so, was starting to subside.  Even the scandal hungry media began to focus on more important issues, such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's sex life. Then the RCMP released a "bombshell"  (the media's favorite word when discussing the Senate scandal) of an affidavit that put the whole sordid mess back on the front pages. Once again, the Prime Minister had to deny, deny, deny. And as they say in the communications business, when your denying, you're dying.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner -- The Conservative Party

Imagine this: An entire week went by with no real mention of Mike Duffy or Pamela Wallin or Senate scandals! This gave the Conservative government a chance to unveil its "Economic Update" which was packed full with good news items -- budget soon to be balanced, tax cuts on the horizon, strong economy. The Tories, in other words, were back on message.

Loser -- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

This is the third time in a row Ford has claimed the "loser of the week" title. I might have to create a special category just for him! At any rate, this past week Ford once again made international headlines for all the wrong reasons when allegations surfaced connecting the Mayor to prostitutes and drunk driving. In response Ford used language cruder than anything you'd ever hear on HBO comedy specials. Later, the Toronto City Council stripped Ford of some of his mayoralty  powers. Surely the Mayor (and I know this is tempting fate) has officially hit rock bottom.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Winner: The Guys Who Write Conservative Attack Ads

With his idiotic comment about admiring the efficiency of China's communist dictatorship, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has provided Conservatives with enough fodder for their next ten TV attack ads, not to mention a few fundraising letters.  Indeed, his odd view on China only reinforces the ongoing Conservative narrative that Trudeau is "In over his head." Good job Justin!

Loser: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford

Earlier this week, after months of denying it, Mayor Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine, probably while in a "drunken stupor."  The ensuing media feeding frenzy was not a pretty sight. In fact, watching the Ford saga unfold is like watching an animal get tortured. This has now gone beyond communication crisis or scandal, we are now watching a human being facing serious problems implode in a bizarre real time tragic soap opera. For the sake of his health, I hope Ford gets the help he needs and gets it soon.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Deconstructing Trudeau's China "Joke"

American writer E. B. White once said, “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”

Maybe that's why I can't get anyone to explain to me the humour of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's so called "joke" about admiring the efficiency of communist China -- no one wants to kill it. 

But I'm a little more callous so I've decided to dissect this joke myself, just so I can find out what makes this Trudeau knee slapper supposedly funny. 

Call me overly curious, but I really want to know why so many media types believe Trudeau's comment about expressing admiration for a brutal dictatorship was meant to be hilariously comical.

To be honest, I just don't see it and believe me, I want in on the joke because laughing is fun!

Now before I pick up my scalpel (don't worry since I'm cutting into a joke it's a just wacky clown scalpel) let's give a little background to the story.

Earlier this week, Trudeau was speaking about how much he loved the "middle class" to a group of upper class Toronto women.

At one point during the proceedings this question was asked: “Besides Canada, which nation’s administration do you most admire, and why?”

That question triggered the "joke" Trudeau's apologists assure us was intended to be a side-splitting zinger.

Here's what he said:

"You know, there’s a level of of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘we need to go green fastest…we need to start investing in solar.’ I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted that I find quite interesting..

OK, let's get to the gory part and start slicing this quip into separate pieces to see what makes it tick.

Here again is the first line: "You know, there's a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say `we need to go green fastest ... we need to start investing in solar"

So you laughing yet? 

Me neither. Nothing in this statement is even remotely funny. All it is is a guy talking about how dictators have an easier time of getting stuff done. And they do. That's because they don't have to worry about picky little things like democracy or human rights or the rule of law. Anyway, it's odd that a party leader would say something like that, but jocular? Sorry, it doesn't even make me giggle. (Mind you, I do concede the idea of investing in solar power is somewhat amusing.)

So let's move on the last line, which, since the first line was so dull, must contain the full power of Trudeau's whimsy: "I mean there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted that I find quite interesting."

Ha, ha, ha, that's hilarious ...wait it's actually just confusing. 

Help me out here, what does Trudeau mean with this statement? Is he saying Harper wants dictatorial power like they have in China? I guess so, but if that's the joke, Trudeau's previous line makes no sense. I mean, he just got done saying he admired China's system, so where's the punchline in saying Harper might admire it too? 

I'm no (old guy alert) Bob Hope, but shouldn't the joke have gone a little something like this: 

"China's regime is brutal, repressive and anti-democratic, it reminds me a lot of the Harper government!"

OK so that's not exactly comedy gold, but at least it has a logical construction: a set up line and a pay off punchline, which is more than you can say for Trudeau's comment.

In fact, my analysis seems to prove that Trudeau's joke doesn't seem to be a joke at all.

And to be fair, it's the media, not Trudeau, which is using  the "It's just a joke defence"  which suggests the Liberal leader really does admire the Chinese dictatorship.

To me that's funny, but not ha ha funny.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Negative Review for a Positive Trudeau Ad

Well, it looks like Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was serious when he promised to stay "positive."

The Liberal Party's recent TV ad, starring Justin, amazingly doesn't even mention the Senate scandal swirling around Ottawa.

To a lot of people that might seem counter-intuitive, but if you're ahead in the polls it actually might be a wise strategy to stay on the moral high road. (So long as you can count on your non-party allies or on the NDP to throw some dirt.) Besides which, for better or for worse, Trudeau has made being positive an essential part of his brand.

Yet, positive or not, I have some problems with this ad that have more to do with its style and content than with its tone.

First off, the ad starts with Trudeau telling viewers the Conservatives are saying he doesn't have the right priorities.

That doesn't make sense to me.

I mean, why repeat a Conservative attack?

Imagine a car company airing a TV ad that began: "Our competitors say our car is unsafe, but let us tell you..."

It's just a bad move.

What if I had never even heard that Tory criticism? Now suddenly the idea that Trudeau doesn't have the right priorities is planted in my mind, thanks to a Liberal ad.

Next, Trudeau utters a series of negative statements: He won't be indifferent to retired people, he won't shrug at unemployment, he won't shrug off lower middle class wages.

This is a mistake because, simply put, it's bad communication strategy to state ideas in the negative. When you say, "I'm not a crook"  the primitive subconscious mind, which doesn't do well with negatives, only hears, "I'm a crook."

So in a sense Trudeau is unwittingly saying, "I'm indifferent to retired people".

Better for him to state his positions in a positive way, i.e. "I care about retired people, I care about the unemployed and the poor, etc."

But the worst thing about the ad is that its only strong visual, a graph, actually shows the viewer that  both economic growth and middle class wages are going up!

Is that really the message Trudeau wants to promote, that the Tories are doing a great job with the economy?

OK, I realize, of course, that his point is that middle class wages are lagging behind, but his graph doesn't really reinforce the bleakness he is trying to project.

He needs a graph, in other words, with an arrow going down.

Finally, I don't like 60 second TV spots. For one thing the viewer usually tunes out after 20 or so seconds meaning a large chunk of your money is wasted, secondly and more  importantly, 30 second spots can run more often meaning you get more message repetition.

I guess the lesson from all this is that just because a political ad is positive, doesn't necessarily mean its good.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gerry's Winner and Loser of the Week

Once again, after careful analysis and research I announce the winner and loser of the week.

Winner  -- Senator Mike Duffy
Duffy managed to twist the knife just a little bit more into the Harper government this week when he announced that, not only did the Conservatives pay him more than 90K to cover his disputed expenses, but they also gave him more than 13K to cover his legal bills (Poor guy!). In the process, the embattled Senator changed the media narrative. Instead of talking about his possible misdeeds, discussion once again focused on the PMO's competence. Plus, Duffy seems to be having such a great time throwing monkey wrenches in the Tory machinery, you got to give him points for style.

Loser -- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford
When Mayor Ford publicly denied the existence of the infamous "crack video" he gambled it would never turn up. He lost. The Toronto police chief confirmed this week the tape's reality. So now the Mayor finds himself facing a communications nightmare. Not only must he explain the video, he must now also explain why he misled the public for so long. Making his road  even more difficult is that many of his staunchest allies have abandoned him, with some calling for his resignation. Ford is in a deep, deep hole. And he's the guy who dug it.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

What Makes for an Effective Political Billboard Ad

Call me old fashioned but in this day and age of fancy, smancy, high tech communication, I still have a soft spot for billboard ads.

Yes, I know, many people regard them as urban blight, but to me  good billboard ads are like art- they are creative, they generate an emotional reaction and they can be a fun way to get out a political message.

So what makes for a good billboard ad?

Well, one way to answer that question is to look at a bad ad.

Here's a billboard the National Citizens Coalition, a free market advocacy group, recently put up to generate public anger against the Ontario Liberal government's fiscally irresponsible policies.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work on any level.

First off, what's its take away message?

All a passer by would see when looking at this billboard is a bunch of big numbers.

 And yes I know the implied message here is these are examples of Liberal misspending. But as a casual observer, how am I supposed to know that? Maybe I have never heard of the "Green Energy Act". Or maybe I think  "green energy" is a good thing? And what does "annual interest on the debt" mean? What "debt" are you referring to? Federal? Provincial? What is debt? In short, the message is lost in a sea of numerical vagueness.

Plus you can't expect people to get upset by astronomical numbers because astronomical numbers are really just an abstraction. What's the difference between $1 billion and $100 billion? To the mind: nothing. They are just two large numbers.Numbers alone don't move us.

My point is nothing in the copy of this ad does the job of generating anger at the Liberals. Confusion maybe but not anger. It lacks the punch needed to generate an emotional response.

Nor does the format or layout of the billboard help.

It's supposed to be a "Ontario Taxpayers' Trust" credit card. At least that's my guess, because it doesn't really look like any credit card I've ever seen. Anyway, whatever it is, the visual is weak and does nothing to reinforce the ad's main message. If anything it only adds to the confusion. I mean what's that graphic supposed to be in the left hand upper corner? A credit card chip? Who knows? Who cares?

Finally, the billboard's call to action "Stopping the Liberal Government? Priceless," is supposed to be a cute take off on those ubiquitous Master Card ads. And I suppose it would be cute, had not that "priceless" line been parodied about a million times over the past ten years or so. Using it now is trite and unimaginative.

Also, why make your call to action statement a question? That weakens the ad's impact; your action call should be assertive and clear, i.e.: "Let's stop the Liberals!".

What's worse, nothing in the copy connects the Liberal government to the numbers cited in the ad. It rests on the observer to make that connection. That's a big mistake. You can't count on a viewer to understand what you mean. That's why a good billboard ad (or any political ad for that matter) hammers you over the head with its message. There's no room for subtlety.

After all, when it comes to billboards you only have a few seconds to  make your case before a honking horn or a good-looking pedestrian distracts the viewer.

The bottom line, in other words, is a billboard ad needs to convey information that people can absorb with just a glance.

Yes, I know that isn't easy. But it can be done.

For one thing a billboard ad needs to have a strong visual that attracts attention and it needs to have concise to the point wording. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, a billboard ad should have no more than eight or nine words.

To show you what I mean,  here's a billboard ad I created back in the mid 1990s as part of a media campaign designed to oppose then Ontario Premier Bob Rae's economic policies.

 It's simple; it's direct; it's even a little funny. The point is anybody walking by this billboard would get the message. (As an aside, this billboard attracted lots of media attention precisely because it was so effective, which helped to generate even more news about our cause.)

Here's another billboard I created as part of a campaign opposing the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly.

Again simple message, complemented with an interesting visual.

"Goodale" by the way referred to Ralph Goodale, who at the time this billboard came out was the Liberal cabinet minister in charge of the Wheat Board. He was a high-profile minister and well known in Regina, where this ad appeared, so people seeing the ad would likely know the name.

Anyway, my point is billboards can be an effective communication tool for an advocacy group, and I would urge the NCC to do more of them.

They just need to do a better job of it.