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Battle of the Stickmen over HST Tax

Labour launches video parody, vowing to 'stick it' to pro-HST side.

Robyn Smith 23 Jun 2011TheTyee.ca

Robyn Smith writes for The Tyee and others.

Good news for those who can't get enough of B.C.'s latest political meme, the HST ad-star "Stickman."

The BC Federation of Labour has released a parody video of the province's HST information ads, reframing Stickman from a misinformed skeptic of the harmonized sales tax, to a downright grumpy opponent.

It's part of a larger HST opposition campaign by the federation that's "based on the facts," according to B.C. Fed president Jim Sinclair. 

But Finance Minister Kevin Falcon questioned those facts on Wednesday, defending the government's $5 million HST information campaign -- which includes videos of Stickman and his pals mulling over the HST -- as "informative."

Funny that goes viral isn't something ad campaigners can command into being, says a journalism professor who studies parody.

And it's a close race with both sides looking for any edge. A recent Ipsos Reid poll found 44 per cent of respondents in favour of scrapping the HST in B.C., with 38 per cent voting to keep it.

The battle of the stickmen will be resolved after July 22, when the government has received voters' ballots for the HST referendum. 

Parodying a 'biased' campaign

Sinclair said the pro-HST side left the door wide open for parody because it bills its Stickman ads as neutral. In fact, he said, those ads are "very biased" while labour's rebuttal is "based on the facts." 

In the BC Federation's parody, a stickman used car salesman keeps changing the cost and colour of the HST vehicle he's trying to sell to his stickman customer, who remains unpersuaded. That ad aired once on television Tuesday, and can now be seen on its anti-HST campaign website and through Google Ads. According to Sinclair, three or four more parody videos are on the way.

He said that government spending on the "biased" HST campaign was part of the reason why the federation launched its oppositional one, which will cost around $50,000 total.

"The government is spending millions of our money to sell us a tax that will mean that we'll pay more taxes, and corporations will get off the hook completely for $2 billion a year," he said.

The federation created its own HST by-the-numbers webpage, and its own analysis, available online. According to Sinclair, the numbers were compiled from Ministry of Finance reports.

"They're telling people that they're going to cut their taxes from 12 to 10 per cent if you vote no," said Sinclair. "But what they're not telling you is, even when they cut it from 12 to 10 per cent, you're going to pay over a billion dollars more in taxes. A thousand dollars more for the average family. 

"It's an outrageous misrepresentation of what's really happening here."

'Paradoxical' opposition: Falcon

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon hadn't seen the parody video when The Tyee spoke to him on Wednesday afternoon, but said he found the BC Fed's opposition to the HST "paradoxical."

"This is the same group that's always telling us how we have to pay higher wages for public servants," he told The Tyee, "And yet they're going to be campaigning for a system that will provide a negative $3 billion hit to the provincial budget."

Stickman continues to appear in a number of government videos promoting its recent changes to the HST's implementation. Announced on May 25, those changes include a reduction of the tax from 12 per cent to 10 per cent over the next three years, one-time payments to families with children and low-income seniors, and increases to corporate income tax rates.

Minister Falcon questioned the numbers on the BC Fed's website, adding that they "completely ignore the commitment to march down the rate to 10 per cent, and they ignore the transition payments that have been made."

He continues to stand by the Stickman videos. "Nobody has been able to say there's anything that has not been accurate in those ads," he said.

Effective satire?

The BC Fed's parody urges voters to "stick it" to Stickman. How effective might it be?  

Joe Cutbirth, an American journalist who recently taught a class on news satire at the UBC School of Journalism, said that as a parody, the BC Fed's video works -- though he had some reservations.

"The idea of using a similar format and similar package for the attack ad, that gives people a visual comparison that might get their attention," said Cutbirth. "But if my next door neighbour who isn't really following politics closely, just doesn't like taxes and is worried about getting her kids to school, if she turns on the TV and sees a stick person walking across the screen and doesn't see the original ad, it's a waste of time."

He said the effectiveness of the parody will be judged by the audience -- the demand -- and not by the "supplier's" intentions.

"That's the biggest mistake people make in a political campaign," Cutbirth said. "Sometimes people with these ads, they create them on the supply side, and then it's like the big tree that falls in the forest, and no one hears it."

By reworking Stickman in a light-hearted way, the federation's parody works, he said. 

But overall, the use of satire can be a "mixed bag" in public debate.

"Light satire has an effect of bringing people in, making politics fun, stirring conversation and public discourse, and I think that's a good thing," he said. "When it's misused, it comes across as cruel and off-putting."

"Satire is most effective when it's a tool of the powerless or the disenfranchised against the powerful," he added. 

"It has to be used cleverly and appropriately, and when it is, it's effective."  [Tyee]

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