Can advertising be a weapon against misinformation in Canadian politics?

Good advertising can make products go viral, turn slogans into popular sayings, and turn a silly jingle into a tune you can’t get out of your head.

Advertising, in short, can infiltrate popular culture in ways that no politician or even any media can hope to do.

So if politics is infiltrated by other agents right now – misinformation and conspiracy theories, to name just two – can the tools of the ad trade come to the rescue? Or, as fans of this old TV series might ask, can “mad men” save a political world gone mad?

Terry O’Reilly is probably Canada’s best-known advertising guru. His radio shows and podcasts, “Age of Persuasion” and “Under the Influence,” have been explaining the power of advertising for years now. “How Marketing Ate Our Culture” is the subtitle of O’Reilly’s first book and also a neat summary of what his popular radio shows teach in each episode.

But O’Reilly worries that marketing has encountered a culture it can’t eat – and it’s the toxic mess of misinformation that litters public space and all the conspiracy theories that go with it that make believe in people really outrageous things.

“Even after the advertising industry has spent a century learning how to change perceptions, this age of misinformation is unlike anything anyone has seen before,” O’Reilly said in an email. email this week.

“Since the term ‘fake news’ came into the air, things have changed. And what’s ironic is that ‘fake news’ was created for the purpose of spreading misinformation,” O’Reilly said.

“In a nutshell, changing perceptions is the hardest job you can give marketing.

“People cling to perceptions – say, bits of misinformation – like possessions, and they don’t let them go easily.”

Eric Blais, founder of Headspace Marketing, has similar reservations about advertising as a sword or shield against misinformation. Frankly, too many people believe that advertising, like politics or the media, is misinformation per se.

“For advertising to be an antidote to the scourge of misinformation, it would first have to be trusted,” Blais said, citing a recent Nielsen global survey showing that only 59% of Canadians have demonstrated distrust. complete or “somewhat” confidence in the advertising that reaches them.

Canadians have more confidence, Blais said, in recommendations from people they know.

“That’s a big part of the problem, echo chambers,” Blais said. “Canadians don’t trust advertising, but they trust the Facebook friend who has ‘done their research’.”

Advertising has come to the aid of politics for decades. (Full disclosure: I wrote a whole book about a decade ago that dealt with this intersection of marketing and politics.)

When politics had to come out of its ivory tower and learn to appeal to the masses in the 20th century, it borrowed the tools of the advertising business. When politics encountered apathy and cynicism, it relied on everything from branding to direct marketing to maintain its connection with citizens.

So it’s not unreasonable to ask whether advertising could be used now to fix what’s eating away at political culture.

Dan Arnold worked for years as Justin Trudeau’s head of research and marketing in the Prime Minister’s Office. He’s back in the private sector now, working for polling firm Pollara, but still watching closely what cultural forces impact the political scene.

Arnold agrees that traditional political advertising won’t work against misinformation, but some of the lessons learned in the advertising business could be used to help put things back on a more factual track, at least for some voters.

First, Arnold said, it’s about figuring out where misinformation is spreading. People who don’t get their news by watching political speeches or mainstream news won’t be convinced by fact checks through these channels.

Similarly, bad information cannot be corrected when it has had a chance to grow, spread and become entrenched in the public. Arnold said liberals never really bothered to advertise to hardline conservatives. Likewise, there are people who are too far down the conspiracy hole to be knocked down – the types who are sure that vaccines are microchip delivery systems, for example.

Still, Arnold said some creative, well-targeted ads could be persuasive to people who are just flirting with all the misinformation out there.

“You have to figure out who the people are buying the misinformation, you have to figure out what the message is to convince them…and the spokesperson will be different,” Arnold said. “It won’t be the Government of Canada,” he added, smiling at the suggestion that Trudeau might talk to the anti-Trudeaus or that the public health agency should argue with the anti-vaccines.

Blais, for his part, liked CNN’s own ad campaign against misinformation — the series of “facts first” spots that aired in 2018. But would they be effective in reaching Fox News loyalists?

“It’s a bit like the television hearings of the commission on January 6,” said Mr. Blais. “It’s superbly produced television. It should be must-watch TV for all Americans, but it’s not viewed or dismissed as biased by the very people it aims to win over.

There is an ongoing effort to use advertising – or more accurately, a lack of advertising – to combat the spread of misinformation. An American group called Check My Ads has attempted, with some success, to divert ad dollars away from websites or other disinformation channels. His latest salvo is launched on none other than Fox News. “Fox News is trying to overthrow the government. You can stop them,” the organization says on the webpage announcing its efforts to choke off Fox ad dollars.

O’Reilly, whose radio shows are generally optimistic, sounded unusually a little somber when I first approached him with the question of whether publicity could be a solution to what is breaking politics.

He said it was a big question, and while advertising may not be up to the colossal task of reversing misinformation, there may be hope to use what the world of advertising has learned about “leveraging” perceptions.

“The key to changing perceptions is tapping into something that already resides in someone’s mind,” O’Reilly said. “You can’t try to change a perception by erasing someone’s memory banks – that’s not possible – you have to leverage something that’s already there.”

He gave the example of the “I Love New York” campaign of the 1980s, which started small and focused on the one thing people loved in New York at the time: the Broadway theater scene. “There was the leverage point,” O’Reilly said. “It’s hard enough to visit Broadway without visiting New York.”

So that’s the challenge of fighting all the misinformation out there, O’Reilly said. “It takes insight. This requires taking advantage of an existing perception. It is a process, not an event.

He admits he worries about how toxicity has become so entrenched in politics, not just here but also in the United States, and wonders if that’s how it felt during the so -called the McCarthy era in the mid-20th century, when the United States was gripped by paranoia about communism.

“Maybe the McCarthy era felt like that too, like the country had turned a corner and there was no turning back,” O’Reilly said. Still the upbeat publicity guy, however, O’Reilly didn’t want to leave the conversation on that dismal note. He added: “But that conspiratorial thinking was finally defeated.”

Hope may not last forever in politics, especially these days, but it hasn’t entirely disappeared from the world of advertising.

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