The Liberals Know You Don’t Like Them, And That’s Okay

In 2009, executives at Domino’s Pizza faced a problem: nobody liked their pizza. In a consumer survey Domino’s scored well for value and delivery speed, but when it came to taste it ranked dead last.

The brand embraced its critics. In a high-profile “Pizza Turnaround” campaign, Domino’s acknowledged its poor-quality pizza while reminding customers of all the good it had done for them over the years and committing to bringing them better pies in the future. The approach was a success.

The lesson, it seems, has not been lost on the Ontario Liberals. Their new campaign ad, released on May 13th, feature an actor rather than the unpopular Premier and begin with an admission – “okay, I get it; everything hasn’t been perfect in Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario” – before reminding Ontarians what good Liberals have done, and what they would do if returned to power:

The nod to unpopularity says a lot about the allergic reaction some Ontarians have to Kathleen Wynne. Evoke her name and many people stop listening. By acknowledging and even empathizing with these voters, Liberals hope to at least open the door for their message to slip through.

But while the tactic is new, the overall strategy of shifting from attack ads to a more positive tone is well-worn. The Liberals entered the last two campaigns similarly lagging in the polls and painted as tired and out-of-touch, and yet then, as now, things were otherwise going well in Ontario: economy on the upswing, unemployment on the downswing; wait times down, test scores up. The challenge for Liberals has been linking the pretty good state of affairs with the work of their government.

In past campaigns this was part of a threefold strategy: render the PCs unacceptable, position Liberals as the only alternative, and then use positive ads to appeal to wavering centrist and progressive voters.

There are two big differences this time around. First, swelling populist sentiment on the right make Doug Ford a tougher opponent to attack than Tim Hudak ever was; not to mention that Ford, for all his divisiveness and unpopularity, is less divisive and unpopular than the Premier.

Second, the NDP appears to be a more credible alternative than it has been in recent memory, with veteran leader Andrea Horwath performing well in debates and a platform promising to fulfill key Liberal commitments (with a smaller deficit). Polling now shows the Liberals slipping into third place, removing the argument that they are the only thing standing in the way of Doug Ford’s Ontario.

So it’s all the more important for Liberals to shift from attacks on Doug Ford to a more positive message that reaches out to voters who’ve grown weary with them. It’s not surprising that we’re also seeing, at the same time, a war of words in the press over the NDP’s platform numbers. Expect to see more of both as the middle section of this campaign becomes a battle for second place.

The Pizza Turnaround worked, by the way. Domino’s saw sales spike by over 14% from one quarter to the next. If Kathleen Wynne hopes to retain her seat at the head of the Cabinet table, she’s going to need a political turnaround of similar proportions – and in a fraction of the time.