The anti-Dion ads that ran in Ontario during the Super Bowl and since depress me. They signify everything politically underdeveloped in our society.

I don’t consider them “negative,” though they’re usually called that, like the ads that “swift-boated” John Kerry during his 2004 run for U.S. president. I don’t even think of negative as a negative. Negative thinking is as valid as positive, and often more useful. You need to be able to criticize. It’s a straight survival technique in our overhyped, PR-heavy environment.

But start with the Super Bowl. Why do people watch? For many, it’s an escape — from realms like work, family or politics, which can be oppressive and bewildering. You can easily grasp a football game, just as you can understand sitcoms or Canadian Idol. In fact, with Canadian Idol, you get to vote and you have a clear sense of what your vote means, way more than in most elections.

So you turn on the Super Bowl, partly to get away from the baffling politics of the environment, health care or crime — and it pursues you in those ads. They inject some information on politics into your protective Super Bowl bubble. It has no context, the context is football and escape. Maybe, when an election comes up, you’ll pay a little attention near the end, but right now the ad goes unchallenged. Yup, okay. When’s the kickoff?

I think that’s why these ads are effective. No framework, no challenge, go away and let me veg. I know there’s a debate about whether they work, some polls say yes, some say no. But I think they work because they offer simple opinions to embrace, and then leave you alone. They depend on your general detachment from the political process. The whole system of periodic elections also encourages detachment, except at voting time. The Harper team clearly thinks they work: They bought more and added Quebec.

If there’s a general problem with negative ads, it’s not that they’re negative, but that they’re ads. I don’t see why we need ads at all, not just in politics but in the economy. I know that sounds less like heresy than stupidity, but I think it just proves we’ve been conditioned to see ads as an inevitable fact of nature. And I speak as someone who admires the wit and brevity you often find in ads, even their occasional poetry.

What that shows is how the human spirit can find a creative outlet in any form it’s channelled toward, as medieval artists did with their work in cathedrals. I think you could have a capitalist economy without advertising, it just wouldn’t be this kind of monopolized, coercive economy — and all the more so for politics.

The function of ads is to convince people they need something and to drown out the voice of competitors. (I ignore the propaganda about ads’ purpose being to inform.) This is exactly the wrong kind of discourse in politics. What citizens need to hear is the din of competitors responding to each other’s critiques. They want to know what your opponent would say in response to you, and what you say in reply to the response. It’s about debate and then, democratic decision. Selling has nothing to do with it.

Okay. But getting real, what would be the antidote to the distorting role of ads? Well, as in the marketplace, it would be an educated, informed audience. They wouldn’t fall victim to the glibness and one-sidedness of ads. In fact, ads would more or less vanish because they’d be useless in the face of truly informed consumers or citizens. This is where it really gets depressing.

Who will create that informed citizenry — the media? Either they’re selling someone themselves — as CanWest Global and CTV have formed up smartly behind the Harper option, or they have less space for politics amid lifestyle, celebrity news, health etc., which they use to increase their audience so as to attract more ads.

You can try watching the debate direct from Ottawa but the convoluted procedural style doesn’t clarify much. Besides, the parliamentary channel has moved so far up my dial, I can’t get it on any of my TVs, and I have five. Does that mean I have to buy new sets? How do I choose? I need ads! Pass the Saturday Star — if you can lift it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.