Liberals Respond Justin Time

When the Conservatives launched attack ads against Stephane Dion in January 2007, it took the Liberal Party three months to respond. Never again, they vowed. Next time we’ll fight back!

Just Visiting first aired in May 2009, yet we didn’t see a rebuttal until Labour Day .

So the first thing you need to know about the new Justin Trudeau ads, released today, is that the Liberal Party has learned its lesson (and all it took was the near destruction of the party!). In politics, you must define or be defined, and those who let themselves be defined wind up leading guest lectures rather than governments.

The form this counter-punch has taken is to briefly address the attacks then, quite literally, change the channel to Justin’s more positive message. It’s exactly what I called for last week – use the attack ads as a foil to further define Trudeau as the positive and optimistic candidate. Trudeau promised “hope and hard work” in his showcase speech, and this ad is right on message.

The classroom setting is a nice touch given the Tory ads attacked him for being “just a teacher”. I know it’s a very minor detail, but I dig the math on the blackboard, if only because it subtly makes the viewer think “serious math teacher” rather than “drama teacher who enjoys taking his clothes off”. Similarly, gently reminding Canadians that he’s a father projects a certain level of maturity. Like I said – define, or be defined.

If I wanted to walk from Math class to Biology, we could further dissect every line and detail of the ads but, at this stage, the important thing is that the Liberals responded and they responded on message. That may not sound like a lot, but for a party that failed to do this the last two times out, that’s a huge win.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Ads, Federal Politics

About CalgaryGrit

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

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53 Responses to Liberals Respond Justin Time

  1. Vancouverois

    “the important thing is that the Liberals responded and they responded on message. That may not sound like a lot, but for a party that failed to do this the last two times out, that’s a huge win.”

    I’m afraid that’s a pretty low standard.

    I think there’s a lot to criticize in this ad:

    * It’s clearly reacting to the Conservative attack ad, which refocuses attention back on it (note that the French ad doesn’t do this). Yet it doesn’t address anything in that ad, especially not the quote about Quebeckers being better than other Canadians.

    * JT isn’t really saying anything substantial – he’s just speaking platitudes. If you watch it without the sound on, can you tell what the message is?

    * I actually dislike the math on the blackboard. It isn’t a subject that JT taught, so why is it there? To give a misleading impression?

    Overall I just find it kind of bland.

    Is it a step in the right direction? Perhaps. But I think it could have been a lot stronger.

    • CalgaryGrit

      I’ll agree with you on the content (and, to be frank, the delivery is a little underwhelming). It’s nothing more than platitudes, but this is an ad for Justin to introduce himself to Canadians – not one to spell out his full platform.

      Maybe it comes across as bland, but I think it’s a nice contrast to the Tory ads.

    • CalgaryGrit

      Actually, it looks like Justin did teach math a fair amount:


      But Adam Fine, a classmate of Mowatt’s in Trudeau’s math class, shared Mowatt’s view that Trudeau was the school’s most dynamic and creative teacher, leading wide-ranging discussions on a variety of academic and public policy matters.

      “I remember when math class turned into an interesting discussion on Canada vis-a-vis the United States. … He certainly bent the curriculum in a way to challenge us,” said Fine, who now works with a New York-based start-up firm involved in social media analysis.

      • Jim R

        From the article it sounds like he taught math to 10 year olds. So that would be grade 4 or so. Maybe not as “soft” as teaching drama, but nothing like teaching high school pre-calculus.

        And also from the article it sounds like Trudeau was being fondly remembered for taking a math class and turning it into a political discussion. Not exactly the best way of driving home what a great *math* teacher he was. [speaking as a parent who has had his fill of less than spectacular math teachers teaching his kids]

        • Marc from soccer

          I think there is a lot to criticize with Trudeau, particularly his inexperience and his relatively short teaching career.

          But getting after him for teaching grade four math vs. ‘harder’ teaching subjects? Come on.

          What’s next, are we gonna get after a former high school biology teacher as “soft” compared to an inorganic chemistry prof in second-year uni?

          There’s a line between critique and partisan chicanery.

          (Plus, anyone involved in teaching knows that it gets easier as the kids get older. All the slacker kids that went into teaching go into high school teaching.)

          • Jim R

            I’m not the one that brought up the Trudeau as math teacher theme. However, if that’s going to be brought up as some kind of selling point for Trudeau, then it’s not unreasonable to examine what level of math he taught.

            Anyway, guilty as charged – I’d take a guy with a doctorate in electrical engineering over a grade 4 math teacher any day of the week, even if the LPC membership didn’t agree with me.

    • Sean C.

      It addresses the ad by dismissing it. That’s really the best approach, otherwise you’re letting the other guys dictate the conversation.

      • Vancouverois

        Maybe: but then why include the CPC ad at the beginning at all?

        If you make a point of showing that you’re ignoring the ad – you aren’t really ignoring it.

        • Sean C.

          The Conservatives’ ads exist, and people know that. Making the point that they’re engaged in irrelevant, meanspirited behaviour before focusing on your own positive message is a good idea.

        • Luke

          True they aren’t ignoring it, but it sends the right message I think. The “isn’t it time we focus on better things?” message.

      • Luke

        Exactly. I think getting into rebuttals of specific criticisms of the Conservatives’ ad just further allows them to set the agenda.

        Otherwise, I did not really like the ad, but I don’t like ads, ever. I first *heard* the ad without seeing it, and I was reminded of how much I dislike the way Trudeau speaks. However, when I later watched it and heard it at once, I got a better impression, so somehow the visuals improved my reaction than I had from sound alone. I have not watched it without sound yet.

  2. Jeff

    Actually, he did teach math, as well a social studies and French.

    Ads aren’t about discussing a nine-point plan to fight inflation. And they’re not about point by point debunkings of other people’s ads.

    They’re about emotional connection. Whether or not this ad does that we can debate, but that’s the intention.

    • Vancouverois

      I stand corrected – though Jim B’s comment raises some valid issues.

      While I agree it would be a bad idea to spend the ad refuting the CPC explicitly point by point – it isn’t a formal debate – JT does have to counter the impression they’re trying to create of him. Does this ad do that?

      • CalgaryGrit

        I’m not sure they’re trying to dispell the Conservative image of him so much as push their own image.

        If the Liberals and conservatives are fighting the election on “experience”, then Harper will win. A Decima poll out today confirms as much – it’s one of the few leadership attributes Harper edges Trudeau on.

        Rather, the Liberals want to change the conversation to optimism/hope, since that’s where Justin does better.

    • Vancouverois

      (Er, Jim *R*’s comment.)

    • Paul O

      So why doesn’t he know the difference between a decimal and a decibel?

      • Johnny

        Then why doesn’t Leona Aglukkaq know the difference between a separatist and a specialist?

  3. Jeff

    I don’t have this 100 per cent, but I’m fairly sure that was not actually Justin’s classroom.

  4. Nuna D. Above

    The start-up of the National Post made other newspapers step up their game. Starbucks coming into Canada made other chains offer better products. Although I think Justin Trudeau would make a better game show host than PM, I hope the Liberals can prod the Conservatives and NDP into offering more.

  5. Luke

    Dan, you clearly favour the positive approach, and I do too. However, there is the Warren Kinsella school of thought that the most effective way to proceed would be to go negative. My understanding is he has good reason to adopt this view.

    What’s everyone thinking about the positive versus negative approach?

    Personally, I think going negative would undo the message Trudeau has already committed to and the entire image he is attempting to craft, so he would seem duplicitous. It would be very incongruent and dissonant to me. But maybe the general public would see things differently.

    • Jim R

      The thing is, one man’s negative add *can* be another man’s compare-and-contrast ad. It’s all in the delivery. A positive ad that contains subtle *and accurate* contrasting would be what I’d like to see in an ad. The CPC does not seem to know how to do this, perhaps the LPC does.

      • Luke

        Yeah, I think that kind of approach could go well with Trudeau’s ‘Mr. Positive’ message. I think some amount of negativity is inevitable, but there are matters of degrees. A compare-and-contrast ad would surely have negatives, but need not leave an overwhelmingly negative impression. Indeed, even the largely positive ad we’re discussing now could be said to be negative, in that it implicitly dumps on the CPC for its own negative approach.

        Even a quick negative barb within something like the first 5 seconds of an ad, followed by 25 more seconds of ‘positive alternative’ message could pass without utterly contradicting Trudeau’s brand.

        In my own view, I’m pretty well altogether unimpressed about how important the advertising is, and how much of our attention it consumes. Because it is all about manipulating people, and not really anything about intelligent argument or the real issues in our politics. It’s just emotional manipulation. Oh well.

    • Aman Hayer

      Negative ads really don’t work well when your outside of government. A government facing re-election have to meet a much lower standard than the challenger.

      A party in government need only prove that no matter what they are better than the alternative. They can always appeal to the argument that the devil you know is better that the devil you do not. For that reason they tend to attack the challenger to make it seem like the best option is to vote for the government currently in office. That’s why attack ads are really effective when your in government.

      By contrast a challenger needs to prove that not only is the current situation bad, but they would actually be able to improve the current situation. Simply attacking the other guy is not going to accomplish that goal. If you cannot establish that you are in someway shape or form better than the current government you will never win.

      This ad is really effective at it. It subtitle implies that the current situation is bad (attack ads, pitting Canadians against one another), and that Trudeau and the Liberals have a plan to make things better. That is actually a really good start.

      • Luke

        This makes a lot of sense to me. I imagine much of the reason the Liberals tanked and the Tories prevailed in the last election is because Liberals failed to offer something more compelling than the status quo. Anything but Conservative was good enough for me, but I can understand how centre-right voters were not persuaded.

    • CalgaryGrit

      The two problems I see with negative ads at this stage are:

      1. It’s a 3-party race

      2. The battle right now is to define Trudeau, not to define Harper

      People know Harper. There’s certainly a time and place for the type of add Jim talks about, but that time is probably closer to 2015.

      In some respects, dimissing Harper for playing old school, negative, bully politics is an attack on him too – just a subtle, more acceptable one.

      • Johnny

        Absolutely. This ad is about taking Harper’s greatest strength–his negative ad machine–and turning it into a negative. The biggest problem is that we’re not seeing nearly enough of the Liberal ads. They don’t need as many as the Tories, but they need enough to make sure that everyone seeing the Tory attack has seen the Liberal response at least once and I’m not sure they’re there yet.

  6. Robert V

    I like it.

    I’ve actually been trying hard to like Justin Trudeau, but he seems to shoot himself in the foot (at least in my eyes) every time he speaks. This time he didn’t.

    • Robert V

      Oh but I don’t like his “build a better country” tag line. It makes it sounds like thinks there’s something wrong with Canada.

      • jared

        actually the line is fine in the current political context. it’s clearer by the day that at minimum 60% of Canadians would never vote for Harper and thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction, which is the majority that Justin has to rally behind him. and the people who are truly vexed by that remark would probably never consider voting for him anyways.

      • CalgaryGrit

        I don’t like “build a better country” because it’s just a platitude, but I don’t think it neccesarily implies anything is wrong with Canada. Had he said “fix Canada” or “get Canada back on track” or something of that nature, I’d agree, but even Harper would agree we need to build a better country.

        • Luke

          I think platitudes are fine at this stage. This is just the ‘What does Trudeau feel like’ stage, and that is pretty much just touchy feely crap anyway. I will have big problems with this if there is no meaning come election time though.

  7. Michael F

    Two opinions:
    1) My own. Someone who is very engaged in politics. I thought it was a good ad. It addressed the other ads, and mildly addresses that he’s Pierre Trudeau’s son. It’s a good start.

    2) My girlfriend. She was sitting here across the table while I played the ad. When it finished, she said “he sounds like a douche”. Take that for whatever you will, but she’s the target market for ads like these.

    • Luke

      I can relate! My wife played it across the room from me, so I only heard it without any visuals, and I believe I uttered almost the same words. This coming from a Trudeau supporter, besides. Anyway, with the visuals I got a much less douchy impression, which I guess has something to do with the expression on his face when he’s speaking. His body language seems to suggest he is genuine, but the audio on its own sounds god awful.

      • hosertohoosier

        There is something… actor-y about Justin Trudeau’s voice in certain planned settings. There is a heightened pitch he uses, perhaps to amplify the sense of emotion.

        I always find it unsettling when politicians have two distinct voices (then again, Justin’s in good company – Obama’s speech voice is very different from his natural voice).

        • Marc from soccer

          I’ve thought the same too. There’s something about his slight lisp that drives me bananas. Just the opposite of Joe Clark whose revival was hampered by how he came across on TV, Trudeau is saved by TV. He would have bombed in a radio-only time.

        • jared

          personally i strongly dislike that tone of speech that Justin uses to evoke profundity and emotion, when i don’t think much of anything he says is very profound. i’d rather he talk more like a normal person rather than like he’s some kind of spiritual leader set to usher in a New Dawn for humanity.

  8. Rockfish

    Hey Jim – I guess you win cause you’ve got a guy with an economics degree (but no work experience in the field) running the country like his fiefdom. Good thing we’ve got that Chrétien-Martin $13B surplus to help us fly Stevie’s limousines across the globe, subsidize him and his whole cabinet on their annual “be seen among common folk while attending an NHL playoff game”‘ and spend taxpayers $ on bogus attacks on the leader of the 3rd largest (or 3rd smallest) party in the House of Commons. Stooges like you are easy to fool.

    • Marc from soccer

      Hey don’t get too cocky – that Chrétien/Martin surplus only came about from the Liberals acting like the conservatives that they truly were. :)

      • jared

        Greece is clearly preferable.

    • Jim R

      You make the mistake of assuming Harper’s “my guy”. I did not vote CPC in the last 2 elections. In fact, I voted LPC.

      Don’t understand why so many people make totally unwarranted assumptions on who/what other people support or don’t support.

      BTW, calling people stooges because you disagree with what they’re saying makes you sound less than intelligent, to put it kindly.

  9. bluegreenblogger

    I think the ad is OK. The fundamental conundrum for Trudeau (and by extension, the Liberals now he is Leader), is that he has cast himself as an ‘anti-politician’, who does politics differently, and will not ‘go negative’. 6 months worth of intense media coverage has established this meme very well, as current opinion polls bear out. The race now is to establish and define Trudeau in the eyes of the many Canadians who have not been paying attention. That is why those CPC attack ads have been airing when and where they are, they are targeted as closely as possible given the broad reach of broadcast medium. Trudeau has to avoid negative attacks, because if he does not, then he is a hypocrite, and all that coverage he earned over the past year is in the garbage bin.
    Hence the conundrum. Establishing, or more properly supporting a positive impression is much more expensive, nuanced, and time consuming than attacking on a simple theme. The Conservatives can keep attacking indefinitely, and I suggest they will do so until it stops working for them, which may well mean attack ads are a permanent feature of prime time TV. The Conservatives have a steep hill to climb, there is a LOT of positive impressions they have to overturn. The Liberals have a tough job to keep it positive, and not lose too much ground. It really will be about the quality of the defense, and how long before the Liberals run out of money.

    • Vancouverois

      I don’t know. Jack Layton managed to convince people that he was a positive and constructive guy while the NDP was still producing vicious attack ads, so apparently it CAN be done.

      • Robert V

        Yeah. Nobody ever talks about how effective his negative ads were.

        The one criticizing Ignatieff about being absent, or the one that blamed Harper for a provincial BC hospital issue (that took place under the NDP).

        • Marc from soccer

          The Conservatives learned from the NDP – the negative Trudeau ads were taken straight from the NDP negative ad playbooks – make it lighthearted, jokey and have some music in it that doesn’t sound like it came from a UFO-invasion-movie trailer.

          The negative NDP ads in the last election were full of cartoony images and goofy music covering up what was essentially a very stinging line of attack.

          • jared

            as the third party that few people took very seriously, the NDP could pretty much do and say anything they wanted to and got a mostly free pass in the press. as the second party they’ll actually need an actionable, rational, and properly-COSTED platform next time around that will be heavily scrutinized. i for one look forward to seeing it.

          • CalgaryGrit

            Yeah, the jokey NDP ads worked great. And I think Trudeau is an easy target to caricature in that same sort of cartoon-y attack, so I expect they’ll go that route again.

            I’m not sure these CPC ads really capture that tone, though. They still have the quotes, bad picture, and nasty feel to them.

          • Marc from soccer

            Good point Dan. There is a slight mean-spiritedness to the ads, but it’s in a way that when a somewhat-likeable high school bully teases someone … though the nice kids know bully is a jerk they may chuckle internally at the truthfulness of the attack. Whereas the Conservatives ads at Dion and Iggy were just hard to watch as there was no humour to it to give it a broader appeal.

            I think that’s where they reflect the NDP’s ads. The NDP’s were less bullying, more broad-based, but went after the funny side of their kernel of the truth, not the fear reflex.

            Re: jared: Just because you didn’t take the NDP seriously doesn’t mean that others didn’t. That type of arrogance is what led to Liberal decline in the first place. These types of comments are irrelevant and outdated.

            The media and the public were taking the NDP seriously long-before they had their seat explosion in the last election. They wouldn’t have had it otherwise. That’s what the Liberals didn’t understand – vote total, seat total don’t count for everything. It didn’t reflect support for Conservatives when they were down to two+Reform, and it didn’t reflect support for the NDP when they were at 11 or 12.

            Costed, actionable, rational, are all buzzwords that matter to hyper-partisans but are ignored by the public, because they know that not only are none of them truly independently costed, they won’t be fully enacted anyway, by any party.

          • Luke


            “Costed, actionable, rational, are all buzzwords that matter to hyper-partisans but are ignored by the public”

            Indeed. And who can tell anyway? Almost no voters are actually going to go digging through whatever documents they would need to dig through to start testing the validity of the costing of election platforms. Who has the time or knowledge? Nobody. All you can do is try to hazard a guess at which platform strikes the right balance of seeming reasonably feasible and offering ideas/policies that appeal to you.

            Also very silly to disregard the NDP as a non-factor. A party doesn’t form official opposition if people weren’t taking it seriously. Last election the Liberals and NDP offered virtually indistinguishable platforms, and clearly ~10% more Canadians found the NDP more deserving of a vote than the Liberals under those circumstances.

          • CalgaryGrit

            Marc – That “High School bully” theme has got me thinking. Dion was the class nerd, Iggy was the awkward exchange student. No surprise that the public sided with the bully against them.

            So I guess the question now is whether Harper is bullying the rich pretentious kid no one really likes, or the most popular kid in school?

      • Bluegreenblogger

        Different scenario though. Jack was arguably better known, and never made any promises not to attack. He was fiery and passionate! It would have disappointed if he failed to attack. And more to the point, Trudeau has repeated his theme consistently for approaching a year. And Trudeau has had more coverage on his one simple theme than Layton got in a lifetime. Therefore, from the date of the Brazeau-Trudeau ‘Thrilla on the Hilla’ boxing match to this day, Trudeau is 110% about being Mr. Positive. Think about it for a second, recall what you knew about him a year ago. Then think on his position in the polls today. What actually caused him to be topping the polls? Now ask yourself what happens if he turns around and goes vicious on us all of a sudden? Wanna go negative in a big way, then get somebody else to do it for him… Closer to the next general election… Negative is for winning elections, positive is for building the Party. That is my thought anyway.

        • Vancouverois

          As Jim R and Luke basically say further up the thread, it’s all in the framing.

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