Justin Trudeau: Too Sexy For His Shirt, Too Sexy For Canada?

The only thing more predictable than Justin Trudeau’s win in the Liberal leadership race was that it would be followed by Conservative attack ads. For those curious what the sequel to “Not a Leader” and “Just Visiting” would look like, the wait is over:

It should come as no surprise that the ad is repugnant, immature, and, as Stephane Dion would say – “completely unfair”. The central quote about Quebecers being better than everyone else is literally from a different century, and in the full interview, a 20-something Justin appears to be paraphrasing his father’s philosophy on why Quebecers don’t need special status.

We’ve come to expect out of context quotes from the Conservatives, but what is surprising is this level of slopiness. The companion ad uses the “just a teacher” attack, which merely gives Trudeau an opening to springboard onto his “what does Mr. Harper have against teachers” soapbox which he used to great effect last weekend. Oh, and that fake striptease footage that dominates the commercials? That came from a Canadian Liver Foundation fundraiser, where Justin’s little turn on the catwalk raised $1,900 to fight liver disease. Oops.

It’s safe to say the reaction to these ads will be overwhelmingly negative. But I’d remind people there was a chorus of criticism about the Dion and Ignatieff ads – they distorted the truth, they were “too mean” for Canada, they were sure to backfire. Some polls even showed Not A Leader landing with a thud among those who saw it. But those ads worked – even if no one wanted to admit they worked.

So it would be foolish for the Liberal Party to dismiss this latest assault with a wave and a laugh, or to assume the whole country has been innoculated against them by Trudeaumania. I suspect the core message – that Trudeau isn’t mature enough to be Prime Minister – will resonate with many Canadians. As Tom Flanagan would say, “it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be plausible” – and no matter how ugly the packaging is, the message inside these ads is definitely plausible.

At every Liberal Party event I’ve been to over the past two years, someone has gotten up and said “we can’t let ourselves be defined by Conservative attack ads again”. Of course, Liberals said the same thing after the 2008 election, then snickered at the Just Visiting ads, confident they would backfire, given that Michael Ignatieff was far more popular and a far better politician than Stephane Dion. I don’t care how charismatic Trudeau is, he needs to hit back, and he needs to hit back immediately.

That said, I think lowering himself to Harper’s level, with a series of negative attack ads of his own, would be nearly as damaging as not responding. The challenge isn’t for Trudeau to define Harper, it’s to define himself – and by joining Harper in the mud, he’d dull the shine on his message of hope and optimism.

Rather, the Liberals need to open up the “leader defense fund” and get something on the air as soon as possible, where Trudeau talks directly to Canadians and addresses the ads – but then pivots to the positive. Have Justin remind Canadians the reason he’s in politics is to move beyond the nastiness that Stephen Harper revels in. Use the ads as a platform to share his vision, and talk about the future he wants for his children.

The Tory ads are clumsy and mean spirited, but we’ve seen clumsy and mean spirited work before. If Trudeau punches back quickly with a positive message then maybe, just maybe, these ads will serve as the foil he needs to prove he practices the type of optimistic politics Canadians long for.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Ads

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at www.calgarygrit.ca and online at the National Post.

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32 Responses to Justin Trudeau: Too Sexy For His Shirt, Too Sexy For Canada?

  1. MPAVictoria

    And once again I am surprised and appalled at the depth to which the Tories will sync. They must have a very low opinion of the Canadian public to think this kind of ad will be effective.
    /Of course the really scary thing is that their opinion may very well be right.

    • ck

      “They must have a very low opinion of the Canadian public to think this kind of ad will be effective.”

      Sadly, it’s been earned. How else does an uncharismatic mean spirited man win all the time?

    • Marc from soccer

      Be dismissive at your peril. I dislike negative ads as much as the next person but the reason we’re here on post 18 or 20 or so is because…well…in this case they have a bit of a point.

      Whether these will stick we’ll have to see, but hitting on Trudeau’s experience, and particularly his *judgement*, with just a whiff of entitlement from his last name, well that’s three bullseyes in one shot.

  2. hosertohoosier

    It’s the right two messages to hit, I think.
    1. Justin Trudeau is too pro-Quebec
    2. Justin Trudeau is a lightweight

    The reason they are the right messages is that even (nay, especially) by addressing them, Trudeau must take risks.

    Trudeau can’t push too hard against the message that he is for Quebec first because that same message is helping him in Quebec.

    It will also be hard for Trudeau to challenge the “lightweight” critique without taking clear, substantive positions. Right now he is an empty vessel that Canadians can pour their hopes and aspirations into. The ~32% indicating they’d vote for Trudeau are probably not all true Trudeaupians.

    • Vancouverois

      Below the belt or not, this ad (and its companion) have the potential to be very effective. The bit about Quebeckers being better than other Canadians is especially effective – it echoes his Alberta comments that sank Liberal chances in the Calgary Centre byelection.

      And even the explanation that it’s one of the values that his father passed on to him doesn’t help. It’s a reminder of the contempt that his father was reputed to have for western Canada – and he does say it’s a value that was passed on.

      • Marc from soccer

        Agreed with both above. The ads are repugnant, but they are precise and well done.

      • CalgaryGrit

        Agreed. I think the Quebec quote can be easily dismissed as “14 years old and taken out of context”, but then, he does have the Alberta and Quebec separatist comments that echo this, so it’s harder to brush off.

        Of course, the Tories have to be careful they don’t get themselves into an “anti-Quebec” trap when they attack Justin on this front, but I don’t think these ads do that. And, truth be told, they’re probably fine letting Trudeau and Mulcair fight over Quebec.

        • Vancouverois

          Actually, I think the ad is very clever in being careful not to come off as “anti-Quebec”. It basically just says that JT’s comment isn’t very Prime Ministerial. They don’t act like it’s a big deal.

          However, they don’t need to. You can be sure that people across Canada are going to have a visceral reaction to that image of JT saying Quebeckers are superior.

  3. Vancouverois

    There’s an old political joke about one campaign (I think it’s originally Nixon running for President – or maybe Lyndon Johnson?) where this candidate instructs his campaign team to start spreading the rumour that his opponent, who is a pig farmer, has carnal knowledge of his livestock.

    His campaign manager tries to dissuade him. “Sir,” he says, “we can’t say that! There’s no way we can prove that your opponent is a pig-f&*%er!!!”

    The candidate smiles, and says “Oh, I know. But I want him to spend the whole campaign having to deny it.”

  4. Luke

    I think you are right that the idea should be to use the ad to turn the tables. Trudeau has already begun to define himself as ‘the positive candidate’ and labelled his opponents as negative cynics. This ad is a validation of that message, so I think he could conceivably benefit from it if handled well.

  5. wilson

    Liberals have run a 7 month long attack ad on PM Harper, called a leadership race.
    You have a few well deserved hits coming back at yah!

    Trudeau had 7 months to define himself,
    the CPC is just filling in afew of the gaps he left.

  6. Robert V

    As always I agree with everyone you wrote.

    That being said, was I the only guy to raise an eyebrow at Trudeau’s leadership acceptance speech?

    He said he wouldn’t play partisan politics or go negative, and then immediately said the Conservatives will spread fear, sow cynicism and that what they fear most are informed voters.

    That’s negative.

    If you’re going to do it, at least do it right, like the Tories and NDP did last election.

    • Luke

      Agreed that there’s negativity in the Trudeau message, but I think what he means is to balance those barbs with a message that seems positive enough that this is the overwhelming feeling voters get.

      • Robert V

        Good point. I get that.

        I know there’s a big difference between what he said, and what the Tories do. So I’m not worried.

        The only thing that worries me is that a lot of people (myself included) first turned away from the Liberals because they had grown entitled to power and weren’t listening and growing anymore.

        The untested son of a prime minister is hardly the man to reverse that policy, especially when he seems to think that the reason people stopped voting Liberal was because they weren’t informed. That’s the same type of arrogance that got people listening to the ideas of a former 2-seat party or a lifelong 3rd party to begin with.

        • Marc from soccer

          Agreed – but it’s not just in the leadership, it’s throughout the party apparatus and the core support. Case in point – Dismissing the appeal of a party’s ideas based on seat totals is the same type of arrogance :)

    • CalgaryGrit

      I think that’s sort of “going negative without going negative”. Even the Tories tried that back in 2005:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsfcoXHARAU

      I don’t think anyone expects Justin to not say a bad word about Stephen Harper. I think it’s about disagreeing on issues of substance and staying respectful.

      I will conceede the “fear informed voters” line is a bit smarmy and disrespectful, but I think going after Harper for being mean spirited is fair game.

  7. kirbycairo

    So far Trudeau has been remarkably successful by letting his critics point at him and laugh. Time after time they tell us that Trudeau is a lightweight who has no chance of doing anything, and time and again he smiles and comes out on top. So far it has been rather uncanny.

    And we have a new situation for the Cons now. They are now the “old,” rather tired looking government mired in scandal. And Trudeau is significantly more popular than both Dion and Ignatieff. These different circumstances will surely lead to different results.

    And I say this without being a Liberal or a Trudeau supporter.

    We shall see.

    • hosertohoosier

      The LPC’s polling numbers under Trudeau are not significantly different to those Dion and Ignatieff had after winning the leadership.

      In December 2006, Ekos had the Dion Liberals at 40% to 33% for the Tories. His party actually outpolled the Conservatives as late as August 27th.

      The same was true of Ignatieff in early 2009. If you look at threehundredeight’s polling chart, the Liberals under Iggy led for three months (April to June).

      What should be more troubling about Trudeau is that he is not further ahead despite having far better personal approval than the previous two Liberal leaders. If this turns out to be a honeymoon, and if his personal numbers are vulnerable, he could do much worse than his predecessors.

      • Johnny

        He’s at 43%, which is extremely high overall. I think there’s a certain amount of stickiness when you get up into the forties that makes it quite difficult to climb no matter how popular any leader might be. But it’s the personal numbers that matter: people like him, at least so far, and that’s a big difference from Ignatieff and Dion who were big unknowns at best. More importantly, if you look at the regional numbers you’ll see that his numbers in Quebec and the Maritimes are stunning, and they’re very solid by Liberal standards in the Prairies as well. It’s Ontario and BC where his performance is comparatively ordinary, but that’s likely owing to the unpopular Liberal governments in those provinces. At least one, and likely both, will be gone by the next election. We’ve also never seen a split in the nationalist vote in Quebec before, so the results there could be quite dramatic IF Trudeau can hold his support there over the next two years.

    • hosertohoosier

      Looks like there is a new ad out, going after Trudeau’s background: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGWuN3ZVuxU&feature=player_embedded

      I’m not sure drama teachers will like the tone with which the ad says “drama teacher”, but the “two years” part may save it. When Mike Harris was premier I recall my teachers bashing him for only teaching briefly… and

      The irony is that Harper’s resume ca. 2002 was pretty thin. He’d been a parliamentary aide, an MP, and leader of a right-wing lobby group. Nonetheless I think it was reasonably clear that he had the intellectual capacity and leadership ability to be Prime Minister (even if you didn’t agree with him).

      The content of a resume can be misleading (e.g. Sarah Palin had more executive experience than Biden, Obama and McCain combined in 2008).

  8. Bluegreenblogger

    Well here’s the thing. As far as I can tell, the CPC has spent about 50 cents on media buys, and probably a million people have seen the ads obligingly linked to by every media outlet, and blogger in the country. Now they have tested them for free, and they can dish out a million per month right through to the next election, without missing the cash. If the Liberal Party tries to follow your advice and engage in a pissing contest, they will run out of dough in a few weeks. The Conservatives are able to bleed the Liberal dry without tuching their war chest, so it is time to work out an alternative strategy methinks. It may not be ‘fair’ but that is th real world, all the wishing in the world will not fund a counter-attack

    • CalgaryGrit

      Yeah, it really comes down to the media buy. Though I’m not convinced they’ll get a lot of great earned media off these, since people will likely focus in on the “charity striptease” rather than the message.

      It’s certainly possible this is just them stirring the pot, and the big assault is going to come later this year, or in 2014.

  9. Aman Hayer

    I am wondering one thing though, I mean a lot of Liberals said the same thing about Trudeau when he first ran however over the course of the campaign people began changing their mind on Trudeau and actually came to the conclusion that he was ready to lead.

    Certainly I count myself as one of those Liberals. I wonder if painting him as being aloof could actually backfire if he came out with decent policies and a decent campaign?

    • CalgaryGrit

      A friend of mine commented last night that “in over his head” sets an awfully low bar for Justin to clear – he just has to sound competent, to beat the expectations.

      That said, I think the message is more about lack of judgment and experience, and not being ready to lead – that’s more difficult to prove.

      • Rob

        As a Conbot I hated the Dion ads but thought the Iggy ones were right. This one would have fallen between those but for the completely evident fact that JT was describing a position on Quebec that he disagreed with. I also thought that this gives him a lot of time to look good in comparison, I think the low bar point should bear out at least somewhat.

        • Vancouverois

          JT was describing a position on Quebec that he disagreed with? I suppose that’s true in the sense that he was arguing against the separatist position.

          However, the statement that “Quebeckers are better than the rest of Canada, because, you know, we’re Quebeckers or whatever” is not the position he’s refuting. On the contrary, he uses it to support the idea that Quebec doesn’t need special powers, saying that it’s a value his father passed on to him – even in context, it sounds like he embraces that belief.

          • Rob

            hmm, going back to the CTV clip of it, I couldn’t say if he agreed with that or not. The way he says “and that’s a richness” seems to acknowledge positive things about Quebec but not to the ‘better than ROC’ extent but it is unclear. So JT doesn’t really lose anything from me on that, but neither do the conservatives as much as I thought – it’s a silly ad with a basically reasonable and in-bounds point.

          • CalgaryGrit

            My take from the clip is that he’s saying it’s his dad’s position…I think you could infer he agrees with it, but it’s at least somewhat ambiguous.

            The more relevant point is that this is a 14 year old clip from before he went into politics. I think what he intended to say is that Quebecers have a lot of good things going for them so they don’t need special status – obviously he wasn’t doing a very good job explaining that, but I think we can forgive a 20-something for being a bit clumsy with his words.

  10. Mark H

    I think the last Conservative who called Trudeau a lightweight got put down on his butt…literally.

    For those people who think these ads don’t work, last election my sister’s reasons for voting conservative (despite the fact she doesn’t relate to anything the believe) was line for line from the Just Visiting Ad.

    Still…not a classic by any stretch.

    • Vancouverois

      It’s early yet. I expect the Conservatives are still basically keeping their powder dry.

  11. Nuna D. Above

    The ads will have worked if they cause the Liberals to spend money responding to them two years before an election.
    Why is Trudeau stripping at a charity event? I think having footage of that type of stuff and running the song “You’re So Vain” with it would make Trudeau look silly in a humourous way. It’s going to be a long two years.

    • Jason Holborn

      Why is Trudeau stripping at a charity event?

      To raise money for charity?

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