Advertising spending limits mean a lot less today

This column originally appeared in National Newswatch on May 16, 2018

We live in an age where it’s almost impossible to define advertising. It’s hard to distinguish between a Facebook ad that reaches voters, or a Facebook post that people share widely of their own free will. It’s not like the good old days where ads were confined to a commercial break.

With the right content, a crack digital campaign team could take a modest budget and make an incredible impact for a decent candidate running for office without spending a penny on traditional TV or radio ads. By helping seed great online content with a small paid spend, a good campaign can prime the pump in terms of having viral posts that ultimately get shared for free.

It’s hard to imagine a celebrity like our Prime Minister, with his massive online following, not having an advantage when it comes to reaching people this way. His nearly six million Facebook fans dwarfs the 160,000 who follow Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

The federal Liberals, through Bill C-76, have introduced legislation that limits advertising spending to $1.5 million in the pre-election period starting on June 30th of an election year. But because the manner in which people consume their media and information is going through a revolution, it’s doubtful these restrictions will make much of a difference.

The very nature of advertising and campaigning has changed. And it keeps changing. Much of what we might think of as advertising won’t even count towards any sort of limit at all.

So why the bill? It’s always hard to know motives. But it certainly appears as if past Liberal wounds from Conservative advertising campaigns was top of mind when they came up with the new $1.5 million-dollar spending limit.

The Conservatives unleashed a torrent of attack ads on Stephen Dion shortly after he was elected. They branded him weak, ineffective and “Not a Leader.” For political watchers it would be hard to forget the cringeworthy exchange where Michael Ignatieff accused the newly-minted Liberal leader of being unable to make priorities that was heavily featured in the ads. Mr. Dion never recovered from that onslaught.

That was near the end of the golden age of television advertising. The ability to reach millions with your message was only held back by depth of your pockets (and they were deep pockets).

It worked for the Conservatives then, but it’s unlikely such an effort would work the same way now. Even if you had millions to spend on TV ads, between PVRs, Netflix and YouTube they wouldn’t be as effective. People are more distracted than ever with viewing habits that span many different media types.

Still, in politics, attack ads work. The Dion case shows that. It’s the format they appear in that’s a moving target. Attack ads may not exist as 30-second missives on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in 2019, but the types of messages they conveyed aren’t going anywhere.

They’re just going to look different in the next election and appear in different places than “over the airwaves”.

Looking back, a limit might have been truly effective when there was no way to click on an ad and share it with your friends. Voters used to be passive participants in the political process relying on news coverage to find out what was happening in Parliament. They aren’t anymore.

Political parties will continue to get their messages out and they’ll adapt to best communicate with the modern voter.

They’ll spend millions on building up their following on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram in advance of the pre-writ period, so they have a direct ability to reach people without spending additional money.

They’ll produce online videos, photos and infographics that their fans and followers will share (for free) on their own platforms. At the same time they’ll no doubt come up with hard-hitting memes and revealing videos about their opponents (“attack ads”).

They’ll seek out media interviews and opportunities that can be shared by their supporters as proof points of why their candidate is best.

They’ll host elaborate rallies and events that get livestreamed to your phone.

They’ll work with influencers to amplify their message.

They may even create their own internal video service that documents their candidate and positions.

And if they’re the governing party, they’ll likely be making all kinds of splashy announcements with taxpayer dollars.

All of these things have one big thing in common. They’re digital content that’s largely indistinguishable from what we used to think of as advertising.

To quote Stephane Dion from those Tory ads from a decade ago, “this is unfair”.

He might be right. But this is a challenge the entire marketing industry is facing as individuals, companies and brands transition from advertisers to digital communicators who create content for many different purposes.

It’s no longer necessary to go through the filter of the mainstream media or the filter of a paid advertising spaces to reach people directly.

It’s changed campaigning completely. Right now, digital skill and savvy is required more than dollars and cents. And unless the government finds a way to regulate talent, they may find these limits don’t make much of a difference at all.

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