If the election were an Oscar race…
Ex-Press film critic Katherine Monk says Justin Trudeau and the Liberals would walk the red carpet to the podium thanks to campaign spots that banged the magic gong of belief
By Katherine Monk
They can be as intoxicating as a deep whiff of gasoline — a head-rush that makes you step back with a dizzy feeling, and a brief sense of awe. Political ads are high-octane experiences that fire your brain cells with all the engineering of a German automobile, as well as all the crafty deception.
The very best ads are a high form of propaganda that can be called art (as long as you’re willing to defend Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will as a great piece of cinematic persuasion), and as the Canadian election campaign draws to a close and the pundits have had their say, it’s finally time time to look at the past 80 days through a slightly different lens: That of the film critic.
Sure, I may not have the insights of Chantal Hébert or a grasp of the facts like Rosie Barton, but I know good cinema when I see it, so I’m going to call the election the way I’d call an Oscar race — based on buzz, random blather and a serious look at the marriage of imagery and message that makes a good movie, and a potentially vote-getting promo.
Each party flooded the airwaves and social media with a variety of ads over the past two months, some spots were tailor-made for specific audiences, and some were geared for mass viewing and aired during Blue Jays games and national newscasts. After surveying each party’s YouTube channel for the most-played and most prominent spots, I took a look at the field and found the two extremes — a best and a worst overall (listed below).
But they aren’t the ads defining the race in its final leg. Over the past 48 hours, the parties have been emptying their pockets to make one last-ditch pitch for your vote. These are the ads that could make or break the election as the undecided finally make up their minds, or more likely, follow their gut instinct and mark their ballot using little more than a whiff of feeling and faith.
To get these voters, you need to be clever and cinematically astute. So with an eye for seeing the art in each aspiring piece of persuasion, here is my film critic’s take on the big race.
THE LAST-MINUTE PITCH: “Stop Harper (and his secret TPP)”
It’s an earnest piece of education about a trade deal that will have a huge impact on Canada’s long-term economic prospects, but it doesn’t make the point with people. It speaks through infographics and animation.
The voice-over has the same professional sense of urgency as the female voice that tells you about the side-effects of a given pharmaceutical, making both the NDP and the TPP sound like medical conditions or some form of pharma, and begging for the closing disclaimer: “NDP is not for everyone, some people taking NDP have reported dizziness, nausea and severe depression after taking NDP. Please consult your doctor prior to taking NDP, or any political prescription designed to alleviate symptoms of ABH.”
When they finally reveal the leader, Tom Mulcair, in the closing seconds, he’s in a tiny little bubble, in what looks like a succession of Facebook selfies. And even then, he looks like someone who should be in a smoking jacket holding a martini glass in one hand and a small fluffy animal in another.
Final Take: This one may as well be a power-point presentation to the board. It has no emotional elements to it whatsoever, and fails to make the Trans-Pacific Partnership as sexy as the worst picture of Justin Trudeau their managers could find.
THE LAST-MINUTE PITCH: “This election isn’t about me…” *
What? “This election isn’t about me?” Then who is it about? Given the strategists went for the one-on-one, Steve-to-camera, approach, this had to be about the central character standing in the centre of the frame — a personal appeal to the voter using the power of personality. But Harper stands there with his well-researched blue shirt and best guy-next-door delivery, and tells us it’s not a personality contest and it’s “not about me.”
The ad defeats itself, mostly because it looks like Harper is trying to win a popularity contest. But as much as he’s practiced his outside voice, he can’t quite sell his attempt to look like a normal guy who’s just doing his job. And on that score, he has the tone of a banker who just turned down your mortgage… “it’s not me… it’s the bank.”
The forced smile at the end is something you generally only see on the skeptical security guard on your way out of the late-night ATM, or an episode of Real Housewives when someone accidentally-on-purpose sleeps with your cabana boy.
Final Take: The ad lends Harper an air of desperation we’ve never seen before, making his argument “to keep Canada strong” feel hollow.
* This ad is not loaded in the Conservative YouTube channel, but they did load their other ad, the one with the list of pros and cons for each candidate. It’s a laundry list ad, but note the voice in this spot is different from the one on TV. It’s more sedate, and doesn’t sound like he’s announcing a prize package on The Price is Right.
THE LAST-MINUTE PITCH: “Elizabeth May” *
Turning a new leaf as the fall sets in, and after the Claire Martin weather spots got soggy reviews, the Green Party opted to push Elizabeth May’s track record as a woman of integrity: a leader with enough skills to list in bullet form, such as her leadership in environmental law and politics, and becoming an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005.
The ad doesn’t feature the candidate speaking in her own voice, nor does it show her in action. It’s hard to form a connection with the viewer when it feels like you’re knocking on their door holding a pamphlet. A televised ad means you’re already inside someone’s living room. All you have to do is be yourself, and be present.
FINAL TAKE: It’s a nice ad for Elizabeth May — without Elizabeth May.
*And without a YouTube upload.
THE LAST-MINUTE PITCH: “Real Change Now!”
It’s a nod to the classics, which subconsciously places Justin Trudeau in the same arena as political legends. Cheering crowds, collective enthusiasm and creating a sense of hope are what political ads are made of, and it’s the magic goo that can make a spot more than a 30-second slag, a crafty grab at fear, or a sincere plea for support. When all the elements are right, you can create an emotional reaction that transcends fear and intellectual reason, you can hit the button of belief. Faith is the big gong, the rhetorical chord with spiritual resonance, and it’s what every candidate must strive to instil — not sell.
This ad does Trudeau huge favours in every way as it borrows some heroic low angles from you-know-who in the opening frames, then throws Trudeau into the arms of the general public. They hold signs and smile — it would seem genuinely — as he meets their face with an approachable expression.
The voice-over is from the vocal chords of the candidate, speaking to a crowd, imploring them to believe in the greater good: love instead of hate, unity instead of division, hope instead of despair. The clincher: “The Canadian economy doesn’t depend on him [Harper], it depends on you!”
The whole piece works because the images and the message are working together. When he talks about people and families, we see people and families. In fact, this last Liberal spot has more human beings in the frame than all the others combined.
Final Take: It makes you believe Justin Trudeau is a competent and accessible leader who believes in the nation and its people — playing to love, not hate. So even if the Liberals come out losers when the polls close, they can take heart in winning the virtual statuette for the best last-ditch political spot, and staying classy throughout the campaign.
So roll out the red carpet, Liberals. It’s your colour, and as far as this race is concerned, it’s your carpet: Liberal sweep.
“Justin and Chretien… working hand in hand”
This French-language ad from the Conservatives starts with a shot of Justin Trudeau and former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien standing in front of a packed house of party faithful. Stock synthetic symphonics, the music feels borrowed from a montage sequence from CSI where the investigators process mysterious fibres found on the deceased. Then it lists the faults of the Liberals and why Trudeau and Chretien are disconnected: They said no to the Bombardier fighter jet, ignore the terrorist menace and apparently think poutine is an ally of Canada. After that litany of flaws, they show Chretien opening his briefcase holding a golf ball looking to conjure the ghosts of the sponsorship scandal. Again, another backfire. Poutine is an ally of Canada, and anyone who has a problem with that just isn’t worthy of wearing a Maple Leaf lapel pin, let alone being the Prime Minister of Canada.
“Your Guide to Canadian Political Hair”
Using an animation style reminiscent of South Park and the old ParticipAction ads, this satirical riff on the hair controversy never made it to the major airwaves, but it still got over 111,000 views on YouTube. As one of the only ads to actually use humour effectively, this one shows Trudeau wearing a variety of hairstyles, but holding on to the same campaign placard. Again, the message and the imagery match up, and by proving the candidate is able to laugh at himself and the insults — it makes him look more grown up than his rivals. Funny, self-deprecating, retro and polite, this ad is as emblematic as the Maple Leaf, and makes you want to wear a toque, light a fire and listen to old episodes of Morningside with Peter Gzowski — an Atwood book in one hand, and a fist full of poutine in the other.
THE EX-PRESS, October 18, 2015