Targeted Ethnic Advertising Makes Elections More Accessible - New Canadian Media

Targeted Ethnic Advertising Makes Elections More Accessible

As Canada is a mere two weeks into the longest federal election campaign in modern history, negative political advertisements have already made their rounds in…

As Canada is a mere two weeks into the longest federal election campaign in modern history, negative political advertisements have already made their rounds in the media.

Targeted messages aimed at various ethnic groups will start appearing next. And for good reason.

While 61.4 per cent of voters turned out across Canada in the 2011 federal elections, research by Liviana Tossutti shows that voting patterns vary in immigrant and ethnic communities.

Although Canadian-born voters with Chinese and South Asian backgrounds are more likely to vote than the Canadian average, members of other non-European communities and immigrants who arrived after 1991 are less likely to vote than their Canadian counterparts.

The Conservative Party has long identified this untapped group of voters for targeted advertising. And the ads are beneficial on two grounds.

First, targeted ads convince non-voters to go out and vote for the ruling party. Second, they make a convincing argument for current voters from these ethnic groups to vote Conservative.

Targeted ads were tied into a larger Conservative strategy that clearly delineated “very ethnic” ridings where 20 per cent of the population originates from a single community.

There is very little direct evidence of the success of targeted ethnic ads. However, anecdotal evidence from the 2011 election seems to have convinced the Conservatives.

The party won 23 of 24 ridings in the GTA with large immigrant and visible minority populations.

Extrapolate these results to the other parts of the country with large ethnic communities – such as Vancouver and Montreal – and this strategy could well determine an election outcome.

Part of a larger strategy

Targeted ads were tied into a larger Conservative strategy that clearly delineated “very ethnic” ridings where 20 per cent of the population originates from a single community.

It led to ridings such as Vancouver-South and Brampton-Springdale getting exceptional attention from the Conservatives.

These messages also have the ability to make elections more accessible to non-Canadian-born populations.

The Liberals and New Democrats have also used targeted ethnic ads. But they haven’t come across as part of a larger strategy.

Take Brampton-Springdale in 2011 for instance.

The Liberal MP, Dr. Ruby Dhalla, had won both of her previous elections (2006 and 2008) with small margins.

Seeing an opportunity, Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off his campaign from that riding, and in a busy election season, managed to visit it twice.

This approach has also been supported by the constant presence of Minister Jason Kenney in ethnic communities, policy announcements with ethnic voters in mind (such as ‘super visas’ for grandparents and parents still overseas) and Harper’s visit to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar, India.

In contrast, then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s only Brampton-Springdale visit happened in the last week of the campaign as part of a marathon effort to visit 12 ridings in three days.

The party tried to make up by sending one-term MP Justin Trudeau to visit the riding.

Cheap and easy

Targeted ads are attractive for several reasons. They are cheap to produce and easily distributable. Political parties can attract attention of groups that are not easily accessible due to their lack of civic engagement or language barriers.

Embedding the messaging in the commercial breaks of foreign movies or TV shows, for instance, creates awareness that might not otherwise be possible.

These messages also have the ability to make elections more accessible to non-Canadian-born populations.

[Critics] allege that these ads stereotype ethnic and immigrant communities and fail to reflect their complexities or special interests.

While some are simply translations of mainstream French and English ads, others focus on issues specific to ethnic groups like family reunification, immigration policies and visas, or are congratulatory messages for special events in a community.

Most targeted ads do not appear on major networks or newspapers and are restricted to local ethnic media outlets. And the options are plentiful.

For the South Asian community alone, there are close to 15 weekly or daily newspapers serving the community such as the South Asian Post, India Abroad, Weekly Voice, and even regional and linguistic variants such as the Punjabi Post, Gujarat Abroad and Thangatheepam.

Like the attack ads, targeted ethnic advertising has its critics.

Some argue that political parties use these ads to showcase their favours for certain communities.

Others allege that these ads stereotype ethnic and immigrant communities and fail to reflect their complexities or special interests.

And like attack ads, despite the criticism, expect to see even more targeted electoral ads during this campaign as parties try to rally as many supporters in what is turning out to be a tight three-way fight for the House of Commons.


Anita Singh is a founding partner of Tahlan, Jorden & Singh Consulting Group and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Her research examines the role of diaspora groups and their influence on foreign policy (particularly the Indo-Canadian community) and Canada-India relations.

Anita Singh is on the board of directors for the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA), an umbrella organization with the goal of empowering the South Asian community. CASSA is committed to the elimination of all forms of discrimination from Canadian society.