The Obama Effect -- Political Attack Ads Backfiring for Canada's Prime Minister

What has changed that would explain why negative advertising is losing its punch in Canada? The answer is the election of President Barack Obama by the young voters of America.
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The warm glow of Obama positivism is even being felt up in Canada. The current Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has unleashed venomous attack ads challenging the patriotism of his opponent, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian who was a professor for many years at Harvard University. But a new poll shows that while the ads have caused some voters to think less of Ignatieff, an even greater number of voters think less of Harper for running the critical commercials.

The ads are backfiring, which is a new development for Canada. When the Conservatives ran attack ads during the summer of 2007 against Ignatieff's predecessor, Stephane Dion, the ads had the desired effect. Support for Dion's party dropped and Harper managed to cling to power in the October 2008 election.

So what has changed in the past year and a half that would explain why negative advertising is losing its punch? The answer is the election of President Barack Obama by the young voters of America.

Obama is transforming the American political landscape, and Canadian voters are happily being swept up with his zeal and popular support. In his battle with Hillary Clinton in the primaries and the subsequent campaign against Republican leader John McCain, Obama refused to be negative or divisive. He rejected "old-style" politics. He emphasized that the US is a great country, and that by working collectively Americans could achieve great things. He offered a path to restoring the American sense of pride that had taken such a beating during the George W. Bush years.

Obama's uplifting message of "Yes we can" resonated most strongly with the under-30 age group. It was this plugged-in youth - with their iPhones, Facebook groups, YouTube videos and relentless optimism - that energized Obama during the primaries. In the Iowa primary, Obama lost decisively to both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the 30 and over vote. Yet voters under 30 favoured him by a 5 to 1 margin, thus making him the winner. These young people were keen to be involved, and in many primaries the turnout of under-30 voters doubled or even tripled compared with 2004.

On election day, young adults voted for Obama over McCain by more than a two-for-one margin. They were essential to his win, and Obama knows it. On Inauguration Day, Obama's expressions of gratitude and indebtedness were most heartfelt when he spoke to the inaugural ball for young people.

The under-30 age group are the children of the Baby Boomers. I call them the Net Generation, and they are transforming politics because of their demographic muscle and digital expertise. Their interactive world of the Internet and digital technology is training them to be activists -- not passive citizens. They see Obama's election as making possible their direct involvement in the rebuilding of America. Election day didn't mark the end of their political activity; it was just the beginning.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this age group was largely anti-government; joining in the mood of the day that government's job was to "get out of the way." In the words of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, government was the problem, not the solution.

But young people no longer think that way. They have seen the limitations and sometimes-wretched excesses of the private sector, and believe the public sector is key to solving much of what ails America. They want balance. BusinessWeek recently asked American college graduates who they wanted to work for, and of the top eleven responses, seven were either government or non-governmental organizations. Volunteerism is at an all-time high.

My research reveals that Canadian young adults feel the same way, only more so. They want to see a strong, competent and open government. They want political leaders to discuss intelligently the real issues facing the country, of which there are plenty. In particular, they want the minority government in Ottawa to operate with the country's best interests at heart, not partisan gain. Canadians are keen students of American politics, and Obama's behaviour since being elected President has reinforced Canada's predisposition to goodwill and civility.

The contrast between the Obama and Harper styles couldn't be starker. Obama enjoys enormous popular support, Democrats have a majority in the House and Senate, yet the President speaks repeatedly of seeking policies with bipartisan support. His administration recently invited Americans to a massive one-week online brainstorming session, where citizens can share their thoughts on current problems and possible solutions. Obama wants to hear from voters of all political stripes, and is encouraging collaboration and respect for the opinion of others.

"This whole process is premised on the notion that people are smart and they have things to share," a senior White House official told the Washington Post. "It's an important step in creating opportunities for citizens to engage with the government and co-create policy."

Up in Canada, Harper is spending millions of dollars to denigrate his opponent and question his commitment to Canada. This tactic runs counter to the evolving Canadian mood, particularly amongst the young, who view such antics as toxic to the welfare of the country. The ads are backfiring, and justly so.

Don Tapscott's most recent book is Grown Up Digital. He is currently leading a multi-million dollar study on Democracy 2.0. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Twitter @dtapscott.

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