Colby Cosh has some interesting things to say about negative advertising in Canada including,
Negative advertising is a balancing act which sometimes backfires and, sometimes, works out fine. The 1993 Chretien's-face ad didn't prove that Canadians don't like negative ads; it proved only that they need to be executed with a modicum of subtlety to succeed. The other example of backlash in the Canadian canon of nicedom is a 1997 Reform Party ad which asked exactly how much longer Canada was going to be governed from Quebec, anyhoo. Reform war-roomer Andre Turcotte later made a strong inferential case from the poll numbers that the ad had helped increase Reform's support in Ontario: it didn't seem to hurt, in any event, and the Quebec question was a fair one to put before the voters, especially since the answer now seems to be "forever".
My suspicion is that in the next election we are going to see two or three weeks of "Scramble the Canada Geese, The Land is Strong" ads from the Grits, some positioning "Hi, I'm Steve Harper and I am a conservative...no really...I'm not scary. I was barely a member of the Reform Party." ads from the Tories and some really down and dirty ads from the no-hopers over at the NDP, "Its about oiiiiiil." "Why is George Bush smiling?"
In the last week, if the Liberals are heading towards a majority, the geese will give way to Martin with world leaders, children, in a wheat field, beside a mountain. The Tories will be running "No, Steve Harper, I'm a conservative...never even heard of the Reform Party, I'm not scary." east of the Lakehead and, I suspect, one of those silly scrolls with "Homosexual Marriage, Legal Marijuana, Basi Boys (a twofer that one)....Mr. Martin, you could have said no." The NDP will pump up the volume. Layton, who is at least marginally interesting and has a pulse, is likely to score well on the passion front at the debates and we'll see that. We'll also see at least one ad with Martin and Bush with a good old class warfare line like "American Millionaires".
Negative advertising is largely a strategy for people with not very much to lose and a very loyal core constituency. Done right it is a reminder to the faithful to get out and vote against the evil devil on the other side. It rarely convinces the undecided or the opposition. It is also, as Colby points out, a calculated risk for a relatively short term advantage. The biggest risk is that it will alienate your own supporters if it is tasteless or dumb. For Layton and the NDP, with no chance of forming a government, the downside is minimal. The true believers will remain believers.
Harper has a harder decision. He is not going to win the next election but he may just win a few seats in Ontario and the Maritimes and, if he boxes smart, may be able to hold a few seats in BC. The temptation to take the high road and run for position five years down the road is huge. And, I suspect, the smart thing to do. Going negative is unlikely to help in this election and it might well hurt Harper with the right thinking pinkish high WASP Tories who have been delivered, slightly askance, by Peter McKay. For Harper the trick will be to look like a man who might, when Paul Martin shuffles off the stage, make a good centerist Prime Minister. For the moment he has time.