1993 Chrétien attack ad
During the 1993 Canadian federal election, the Progressive Conservative Party produced a televised attack ad against Jean Chrétien, the Liberal leader. The ad (sometimes referred to as the "face ad") was perceived by many as a focus on Chrétien's facial deformity, caused by Bell's palsy. The resulting outcry is considered to be an example of voter backlash from negative campaigning.
Despite making up some ground against the official opposition Liberals in the summer before the 1993 election call, few had felt that the Progressive Conservatives had any hope of remaining in government once the writ was dropped. The PC party was beset by many problems, notably the recession, the unpopular GST, and their support bases moving to the newly formed Reform Party and Bloc Québécois. While initially optimistic of being able to at least retain second place, the PC's support had dropped badly in the final weeks of the campaign. Realizing that without something dramatic the Liberals were certain to win a majority government, the PC campaign leaders decided to launch a group of four ads attacking Chrétien and his record.
The decision to launch the ads was taken mainly by PC campaign director John Tory along with Allan Gregg, a pollster who was one of the top campaign managers. Gregg had launched a series of attack ads in the last days of the 1988 election to great effect. The new ads were produced quickly, and were seen by few in the party before they were aired; Prime Minister and PC Party leader Kim Campbell, who was on the campaign trail, did not see them before they aired.
The controversial ad was the second in a series of four; the first ad was a strong attack, but not much worse than ads aired by the Liberals or the Reform Party attacking the Conservatives and their record. The ads as a whole were designed to leverage Campbell's personal popularity, which was still higher than that of Chrétien.
The ad and immediate reaction
The second of the four ads premiered on October 14, 1993, and was mainly played in the Ontario market, a market seen as heavy in swing voters. The ad featured still pictures of Chrétien’s face interspersed with comments by actors posing as regular Canadians; the first voiceover asked "Is this a Prime Minister?" with other voices questioning his record. The final, and most prominent, line was "I would be very embarrassed if he became Prime Minister of Canada."
While the ad's creators claimed they had meant for the voiceover lines to refer to Chrétien's policies and ethics, the intercutting with images of his face focusing on his facial deformity were interpreted by many as an attack on Chrétien's appearance. The Liberal Party encouraged its members to call media outlets about the ad, an effort led by Roméo LeBlanc. Because of this, PC campaign advisor Hugh Segal claimed that the backlash following the ad was mostly manufactured.
Reaction and backlash
|A 1993 CBC news segment on the ad in question and the various responses to it.|
While some of the subsequent reaction was manufactured, it is certain that part of the widespread anger at the ad was genuine. Millions saw the ad on news coverage, where reports showed the most offensive segments. Several Tory MPs also condemned the ad and asked Campbell to pull it from the air.
Though she did not make a full apology for the ad campaign, Prime Minister Campbell ordered the second ad be pulled less than 24 hours after its premiere; she also ordered the remaining two ads in the campaign not be aired. However, Campbell's decision caused sharp disagreements between her and her campaign staff. Tory, Gregg, and Segal felt that pulling the ad would validate all of the attacks against it and those in the Tory party who produced it, as well as leaving an impression that the Tories did not know what they were doing. They also argued that leaving the commercial on the air would be far less harmful, and that in time the full slate of attack ads would have the desired effect of lowering Chrétien's personal popularity. Additionally, they pointed out that not only were many newspapers and magazines using photos highlighting Chrétien's facial deformity that were similar to those used in the ad, Chrétien himself had used his half-paralyzed face in the campaign (Liberal advertisements in Quebec used a phrase translated into English as "Strange-looking face, but reflect on what's inside").
Even more beneficial for the Liberals than the anti-Tory backlash was Chrétien's reaction to the commercials. One Tory described them as allowing Chrétien to "make the speech he had been waiting his entire career to deliver." Speaking in Nova Scotia, Chrétien stated that "God gave me a physical defect, and I've accepted that since I was a kid." He compared the Tories to the teasing children of his youth: "When I was a kid people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I'm grateful." The speech not only moved some in the audience to tears, its cut-up into sound bites on news coverage proved hugely effective. Chrétien poked fun at himself in another campaign appearance, saying "It's true, that I speak on one side of my mouth. I'm not a Tory, I don't speak on both sides of my mouth." 
It is unclear what effect the ad had on the election, as Campbell's Progressive Conservatives were adversely affected by other issues (see Background above). Nonetheless, the negative backlash over the television spot made the Tories' defeat certain.
Election results and aftermath
The election of October 25, 1993 turned out to be one of the most eventful elections in Canada's history, with more than half of the electorate switching parties from the 1988 election. The Liberals won a landslide majority, capturing 177 of the 295 seats in the 35th Canadian Parliament; Chrétien became Prime Minister as a result, and would hold down the job for the next decade, retiring from politics in 2003.
By comparison, the Progressive Conservatives' share of Parliament was reduced to only two seats, losing official party status (and the Parliamentary entitlement and federal funding that accompanies it) as a result. Campbell, who lost her riding in Vancouver Centre, resigned the leadership soon after the election. The PCs never recovered as a federal political party; in 2003, it merged with the Canadian Alliance party, with the new entity becoming the Conservative Party of Canada. The Conservatives eventually regained power with a minority government in the 2006 federal election.
- Gordon Donaldson, The Prime Ministers of Canada, (Toronto: Doubleday Canada Limited, 1997), p. 367.
- CBC News interactive feature on political attack ads
- Potter, Andrew. The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. McClelland and Stewart, 2010, p. 192.
- From YouTube: CBC Coverage of the 1993 "Face Ad"