Political Cola Wars

Brand-centred parties ignore the voter at their peril.

With every change in federal government comes a changing of the palace guard and also of the courtiers that surround it—the dauphins and princelings, the patrons and flatterers. Fashions change too (hello colourful socks!) and so do the secret gathering places and favoured watering holes. So, perhaps it was not a surprise that in late February, just a few months after the swearing in of the new Liberal government, Hy’s Steakhouse near Parliament Hill announced last call and shut its doors for good.

Hy’s was a decades-old institution whose passing was mourned by Ottawa insiders. Less noticed, but perhaps no less mourned, was the passing of another Ottawa institution, a small cottage industry that grew up outside the palace walls during a decade of tight-fisted Conservative rule. I refer to a series of dystopian books decrying the irreparable damage inflicted on Canadian democracy by Stephen Harper’s authoritarian regime. There are too many to catalogue here.

A common theme in all those books is how obsessive, centralized message control stifled democratic debate, limited access to information and moulded public opinion, all in the service of keeping Harper in power. These critiques made for good reading because they provided a necessary catharsis for those Canadians who felt that Harper’s vision of the country did not reflect their own.

Alex Marland’s new book, Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, comes to this genre a tad late but with no less vigour and enthusiasm for its subject, and with a slight twist. The challenge he faces, of course, is that the dark days of Harperland have quickly faded in the bright light of Justin Trudeau’s sunny optimism. So how to satisfy a reader’s lust to see the picador draw blood when the old bull has already shuffled out of the arena?

Marland, who teaches in the department of political science at Memorial University, posits a theory of government guided by centralized brand control. And he attempts to bring the academic’s unbiased view to the subject. Centralized brand control, he assures us, can be both good and bad, but mostly ugly as practised by the Harper government. The mask of objectivity slips early on as he describes government branding as “nefarious” and “sinister” and “unsettling”—a dark art carried out by those who are “distorting truth” and seeking to “evade detection.”

Herein lies the dilemma of this thesis: is it describing a general phenomenon or simply the quirks of a former control freak prime minister? Marland is at pains to assure us that his point is a larger one: that an impulse toward branding is driving a dangerous trend toward centralized control, which, in turn, might encourage anti-democratic tendencies. To do so, he must assert that branding is the cause, not the symptom.

Thus, branding is painted as the culprit for voter dissatisfaction with our previous prime minister. Here is the problem, as Marland sees it, “By most accounts, Canadians have been unhappy in recent years with their system of government. One public opinion study found that their foremost dissatisfaction is a perception that too much power rests with the prime minister.” And here is the cause: “The displeasure appears to be connected to a new style of disciplined communications management known as branding.” This argument seems to fly in the face of Occam’s razor, by entirely bypassing the simplest explanation, which is that people simply thought the prime minister was an unpleasant and overbearing control freak.

To prove the general theory about branding, one must also dismiss the Liberal party’s promise of a more open and transparent government, a promise the party campaigned on aggressively in the last election. Despite this, Marland insists, “the mantra that the party leadership and central messages rule supreme will carry over to Parliament and governance no matter who is in command.” But in the face of sincere attempts to unmuzzle both ministers and civil servants, this remains simply an assertion.

Nevertheless, Marland’s argument is that in the modern age governments filter all their communications through a “branding lens.” This has several negative consequences. Most notably, because brand control demands consistency of image and messaging, it creates a centripetal force that draws power toward “The Centre,” putting it in the hands of a few elites. This vortex of power sucks up not just the political players but also the government in power and even the senior civil service. And atop it all sits the prime minister, who becomes the most visible symbol of a blended political and civil brand. The branding impulse imposes complete command and control over the entire apparatus of government. Thus it diminishes the role of parliamentarians, undermines the independence of the civil service and degrades our democracy. It is a pretty scary scenario. In this analysis the centre takes on the qualities of “SPECTRE,” the tentacled menace from the Bond films, a collection of unseen evil geniuses intent on controlling the world.

What is missing from this theoretical model, however, is the figure at the still point in middle of the maelstrom: the voter. In Marland’s analysis the voter is a cipher, a clay figure waiting to be moulded to the will of the political elites. Like prelapsarian innocents, voters seem devoid of agency and unable to resist the sinister influence of all those political serpents.

It is an oddly passive view of voters, especially for someone arguing for greater democratic freedom. At best, this places the voter on the margins of the political process. At worst, it is patronizing. As most seasoned marketers will attest, at the heart of what they do is not the brand but the consumer, a figure not to be manipulated but obeyed. Ignore the consumer at your peril. And never more so than now, in the age of social media. Despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, marketers do not manufacture desire. They attempt to divine consumer needs and wants and then cater to them. Less Svengali and more headwaiter.

The other consequence of adhering to the brand command theory is that it misreads the role of social media in the digital age. No matter how strong the centripetal forces of branding are, the countervailing centrifugal forces of social media are pushing power outward toward voters and consumers. Brand managers have had to learn this lesson the hard way. The old top-down model of communications, where the brand had almost full control of its messaging, is gone. Today, anyone with a smartphone is a potential broadcaster or publisher. A simple tweet or YouTube video or Facebook post can have a profound impact on a brand’s image.

Marketers are having to share control over brand communications with consumers—even with consumers who might not use their brand but still have an opinion about it. A new, democratized model of communication is dispersing control outward. Political branding is no different. And yet, Marland attempts to argue precisely the opposite. Digital media, he says, is a tool for the tightening of political control that can lead to even greater concentration of power.

The trend toward message control is not a quirk of Harper’s personality but a general phenomenon; things will not change under Trudeau, despite actions to the contrary; the internet is a tool for centralized control rather than for liberating individual voices. The more these unlikely explanations pile up, the more the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that the facts have been stretched or amputated to fit the Procrustean bed on which the thesis rests.

Brand Command provides a comprehensive list of Conservative government attempts to conflate the party brand with the government brand, from switching official correspondence to read “Harper Government,” to painting the prime minister’s plane predominantly Tory blue. But Exhibit A in the drive toward blurring the lines between party and state is the infamous Economic Action Plan. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the government embarked on a multi-billion dollar economic stimulus plan, with much of the money going to infrastructure projects in communities across the country. The Conservatives were determined to milk these investments for as much publicity and goodwill as they could.

A logo was designed for EAP, consisting of three oddly proportioned arrows, that are inexplicably bent at the bottom and thrusting upward. The logo formed the basis of a comprehensive branding effort so elaborate that it required a 35-page visual style guide plus a 15-page project signage guide for all those billboards that went up next to any project where the Harper government was spending a penny of taxpayers’ money. In addition, the government launched a massive ad campaign, spending tens of millions annually to trumpet its plan. This advertising continued to run long after the program itself ended. Marland rightly condemns these excesses. They amount to a brazen attempt to promote the party’s brand with public money. But do they amount to a dangerous insurgency from within our parliamentary democracy?

The first thing to note about the promotion of the EAP is that it was met with howls of derision by both the media and opposition parties. Even the right-leaning Canadian Taxpayers Federation called it an affront and a waste of precious financial resources. In other words, the counterbalancing voices that operate in an open democracy made themselves heard.

But more than that, the communications program failed on every level. Let’s begin with that logo. It violated every principle of graphic design and good taste, and appeared to have been created by someone whose full-time job was making flyers for church bake sales. It may have done the Conservatives more harm than good. Every time I saw those three bent arrows lurching upward on a billboard beside some government infrastructure project they induced, not a sense of confidence in the administration, but rather a vague feeling of nausea.

Apparently I was not alone. A government survey of the television advertising created to support the EAP (obtained by the Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act) showed the campaign had failed on every key measure. The 2013 study showed that of more than 2,000 Canadians surveyed only three (that is three individuals, not three percent) had actually gone to the EAP website, which was the stated objective of the campaign. Only six percent of those who recalled seeing the ad had taken any action. And for most of them the action was to lodge a complaint. Most significantly, when asked to evaluate the government’s overall performance only 38 percent rated it as good to excellent, down from an average of 43 percent when the program first rolled out. The EAP propaganda train was actually rolling backward.

If you are going to be an evil genius, intent on controlling the world, it helps to first be a genius. The propagandists behind this effort, along with their troops of boys in short pants, were more Colonel Klink than Joseph Goebbels.

That is not to say we should rely on the incompetence of our political masters to save us from democratic collapse. It means we should challenge the misappropriation of public funds for party promotion wherever we find it and use our power as voters to counter it. The Liberals recognized the public’s anger at Conservative attempts to rebrand the government and re-educate the Canadian public (and civil service) after years of Liberal rule. That is why they made Conservative ad spending a focus in the last election, running ads on Hockey Night in Canada mocking the fact that Harper had spent some $750 million on government advertising during his tenure.

The Liberals also made greater government transparency a key part of their platform, even producing a 14-page brochure on the subject, entitled “A Fair and Open Government.” Among its many recommendations is a promise to pass Bill C-544 which seeks to end partisan government advertising by appointing an advertising commissioner who will evaluate all government ads to ensure they are non-partisan and related to actual government needs.

We can choose to dismiss all of this as mere opportunism and accept Marland’s view that the impulse to impose politicized brand control over all government communications will be too hard to resist, even for the new government. Or we can see the past decade of government rebranding as just the work of a controlling and obsessive man whose era has now passed, a man who has faded so completely into the wallpaper that occasional sightings at airports or donut shops are reported as news.

Either way, in the end it is hard to muster up the energy to be fretful about Harper’s domineering ways, when the tone in Ottawa has changed so dramatically and the new young courtiers are flashing their open smiles and fancy socks. In this atmosphere it is difficult not to view Brand Command as a guest who has arrived late at the party, standing with his nose pressed against the now shuttered windows of Hy’s, unaware of where everyone has moved on to.