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On those Wildrose attack ads: they can hardly say Jim Prentice has 'no plan'

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Screenshot of Wildrose Party Ad

I'm not at all certain the Wildrose Party's TV ads attacking the governing Progressive Conservative candidates in the upcoming Alberta "mini-election" are going to work as intended.

The three negative TV ads depict Premier Jim Prentice -- who himself is seeking a legislative seat in one of the four by-elections scheduled for Oct. 27 -- as being indistinguishable from disgraced former premier Alison Redford.

"Jim Prentice isn’t change," says a sarcastic female voice-over in one of the ads, "he's just more of the same." All three 30-second spots repeat that same key message and use all the gimmicks associated with U.S.-style TV attack ads -- grainy photos, caustic delivery and crude animations.

Now, look, I'm actually qualified to commentate on this issue. I am a student of political advertising, having had a hand in one of the largest political advertising disasters in Canadian political history.

I speak, of course, of the 2006 "No Plan!" ads about Ed Stelmach, which were supposed to persuade more voters to support one of the progressive parties in this province, but by turning off progressive voters or motivating conservative ones, or both, had the opposite effect.

I know who was in the committee room when the decisions were made, but I'm the only one who will admit to having been there. Let's just leave it that way: I'll remain silent to protect the guilty. The 2006 ads -- which seem pretty tame now but were viewed as extremely nasty at the time -- used many of the same techniques as the new Wildrose ads. I'm not bragging about it -- I'm just saying…

The point is, an experience like this that had the opposite effect to what was intended tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully on what might actually work -- and what might not.

And, as an aside, I can tell you with absolute confidence that negative political advertising does indeed work. It's true: Albertans truly believe they don't like attack ads. But they respond to them just the same -- if they're done right, an important proviso.

Which brings us back to the Wildrose TV spots. They're pretty funny. They're memorable. I particularly enjoyed the way the ad makers caught Redford's mouth flapping open and shut. But their key message is so obviously off base they may well provoke an unintended opposite reaction on the part of many viewers.

Yes, Jim Prentice represents the same political philosophy – anti worker, pro big business, infatuated with markets, unimpressed by human values, beholden to the oil industry -- as Alison Redford.

But anyone who thinks Prentice is cut from the same piece of cloth as Redford is simply not paying attention. Of course, the ads' makers are counting on it that plenty of Albertans aren't. But I'm not so sure that's the case any more.

How do these ads get it wrong when they say Prentice and Redford are as alike as Tweedledee and Tweedledum? For one thing, in Prentice, we are looking at a far more skilled politician than Redford, who possessed a kind of reverse Midas touch that turned everything she touched into … not gold.

For another, Prentice is courting a different segment of the Tory Universe than Redford settled on after her initial, highly deceptive leadership campaign and first election.

After being elected by nervous progressive voters spooked by the thought of a Wildrose government in April 2012, Redford turned her attentions to winning back the right-wing voters the PCs had lost to the Wildrose. The increasingly radical right-wing policies her government delivered were rightly perceived as a betrayal of the moderate voters who saved her bacon.

Prentice seems determined to move his party rapidly back to the centre, as premier Ed Stelmach had tried to do before he got sick of being dissed by the organized right in business, the media and his own party.

So in the fall of 2014, no one can say Prentice has no plan!

I grant you, as the Wildrose would like to suggest, Prentice could just be trying to trick the same group of voters the same way. But that won't necessarily help the Wildrose Party since those voters -- progressives -- are unlikely to vote Wildrose no matter what.

It is also true that Wildrose strategy since the days Tom Flanagan was setting the party's course has been to encourage progressive voters just to return to their party homes instead of strategically voting PC, but all four October by-elections strike me as a straight fight between the PC and Wildrose candidates.

Prentice seems wildly different from Redford because he is so much better at playing the political game. To put it in oil industry terms, Redford's political skills were crude; Prentice's are much more refined.

Which means, if you ask me, that the three Wildrose attack ads unintentionally tend to reinforce the message that Prentice is in fact very different, not the same at all.

What's more, the natural reaction of progressive voters -- who might otherwise be inveigled into voting Wildrose in a by-election just for toots and giggles -- is that it is Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, in fact, who is cut from the same far-right piece of cloth as Redford.

Count on the PCs to hammer hard on this idea in the TV ads that they're bound to produce for this mini-election. Here's betting the Tories' ads will encourage the idea that while they're maybe a little bit progressive, there's nothing even remotely progressive about the Wildrose crowd.

The reality that really matters now, but may not even make it onto the radar, is that when it comes to ideology and likely policy, it's Prentice and Smith who are as alike as peas in a pod.

The most effective Wildrose ad, which Prentice's PCs will find it much harder to refute, is the fourth one, a positive spot that shows an approachable Smith telling voters "we're ready for form a government you can be proud of."

Four by-elections, of course, won't let the Wildrose Party do that, no matter how they turn out, but the statement clearly illustrates the problem Prentice has been left by Redford, and therefore just how important these by-elections are to each of the province's matched set of ideologically conservative parties.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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