What do you get when you cross a young afroed dude in a track suit with a tight-lipped senior? The controversial new ad from Elections Ontario. One week after its first appearance, the campaign has set tempers flaring and left many onlookers wondering what to make of it. Last week, the non-partisan agency launched the bizarre media blitz with the intention of goading lethargic citizens into voting booths. Canadians, after all, have had abysmal turnouts at the polls lately, trickling to all-time lows in the last federal and provincial elections. Hence, Elections Ontario's new motivational message: "When you don't vote you let others speak for you." But the jarring visuals used to elucidate the point have the province's seniors up in arms.
"We're horrified," says Bill Glebezon, associate executive director of CARP, Canada's Association for the 50-Plus (a 400,000-strong seniors advocacy group). The collage - an older woman's weathered lips superimposed over those of the young hipster - casts the aged in a severe, unappealing light, adds Judy Cutler, CARP's director of communication. The ad's message is unmistakable, says Cutler: "If (young people) don't vote, then the old fogies are going to vote on their behalf.
"It's totally irresponsible for a body like Elections Ontario to perpetuate such an ageist and discriminate perspective."
But Elections Ontario, an arm's-length org of the provincial government, says the ad is being misconstrued. "I don't think it implies anything except that the two faces are very different," says Heather Bussey of Elections Ontario. "(The ad is) intended to engage voters to the process and encourage them to vote. It's got nothing to do with age or gender or any other demographic."
The ad, she says, must be seen in context. It's only part of a four-part series coming soon to a newspaper, weekly or construction hoarding near you. In all of them, faces of mismatched ages, genders and ethnicities are cut-and-pasted together in different combos. "We have one (ad) coming out in which the face is an older gentleman with a different mouth on top," explains Bussey.
True, but the rest of them feature the same sticky theme as the first: younger people in effect silenced by their elders.
No one would deny that a large number of decision-makers are indeed over 50. And as Michael Adams, president of Environics Research, says, "Nobody's talking about issues that are relevant to younger people. All the (electoral) issues are for older people."
The fact that Elections Ontario decided to kick-start its campaign in urban weeklies like NOW and incorporate subversive guerrilla marketing tactics like outdoor postering makes it clear that the agency is struggling to reach the most elusive voter demographic of all: youth. If you were born after 1970, you're half as likely to vote as the rest of the population, says Adams. No surprise, then, that Elections Ontario would run with the campaign after market research revealed that the afro ad did snag the attention of that increasingly apolitical contingent.
"Maybe they have research that shows that it will double or triple voting among youth. (But) campaigns that try to get young people to vote don't work," says Adams. "A lot of government ads aren't for young people. They would have the same efficacy as telling them all to go back to church."
But with funky dos, piercings and tats dominating this Elections Ontario series, the agency has clearly updated its approach. The result is surprising and strangely captivating.
But CARP says there's no excuse for pitting one generation against another. The group is demanding that the ad be pulled and has fired off a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
But the OHRC told NOW that regs around freedom of speech mean little can be done to curb the campaign, even if it is inappropriate.
Advertising Standards Canada (ASA), the industry body set up to monitor integrity in advertising, says it wouldn't touch the campaign no matter how great the controversy around it, because electoral advertising falls outside the ASA's code (something the Tories must have known).
In the meantime, heads are turning as urbanites whisk past the posters on Toronto streets. Whether or not the campaign actually wakes passers-by from their long electoral slumber remains to be seen.