When John F. Kennedy addressed the Canadian parliament in 1961, he depicted relations between the two nations in beautiful prose: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”
Kennedy’s assessment was, on the whole, correct. However, there have always been differences between Canada and the United States. Take the way in which Canadian campaigns and elections used to be conducted. Canada follows the Westminster model and has a multiparty system; it should have been the perfect political formula for all-out campaign wars. Yet, aside from rare moments of controversy, Canadian election campaigns were more genteel than American campaigns.
But that was then, and this is now. Canadians have gradually acquired a new appreciation for (or acceptance of) U.S.-style election strategies and tactics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have led this charge, using round-the-clock campaign techniques of attack ads, sound bites, literature drops, and social media postings. And it’s worked well, leading to three straight election victories.
These two well-written studies explore some recent transformations in Canadian elections. While the authors view certain ideas through different philosophical lenses, they both reach similar conclusions. Susan Delacourt, author and political writer for the Toronto Star, examines marketing and political culture in Shopping for Votes. While developing her book, she writes, she “started to recognize the creep of shopping language into the political marketplace: brands, products, selling and buying.” Moreover, she noticed “that the parties paying the most attention to marketing trends were more successful than those resisting marketing’s influence on politics.”
Branding techniques aren’t a new phenomenon in Canadian politics. In his quest to determine citizen needs in the 1970s and ’80s, Tory pollster Allan Gregg believed, “Voter choice is really no different from consumer choice.” Martin Goldfarb, a Liberal pollster of the same vintage, divided the “Canadian consumer-citizen market” into six groups in the 1990s, including “day-to-day watchers,” “disinterested self-indulgents,” and “aggressive achievers.” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberals launched a “Brand Canada” strategy in 2000, directed at investment and tourism opportunities.
Yet it’s been during Harper’s tenure that the (mostly) elite-driven political branding has morphed into vox Canadian populi. The prime minister is an intellectual and policy wonk, but he’s also “a baby boomer who had grown up with television images and characters,” and Delacourt mentions that Harper was “struck by an old story about Ronald Reagan and his understanding of how images worked in politics.” As Conservative strategist Patrick Muttart put it, “Stephen Harper was probably the first true, modern communications prime minister.” He was ready to put this knowledge to good use.
Consider the rise of the Tim Hortons voter, as defined by the aforementioned Muttart’s marketing technique to combine the popular coffee chain with a particular voting demographic. Customers were seen as “ordinary” Canadians who didn’t “like fancy, foreign synonyms for their morning coffee and they like their politics to be predictable, beige.” They were older, supported the military, and felt passionately about sports like hockey and curling.
Delacourt writes, “Canada’s modern Conservatives, it’s fair to say, were the first to figure this out.” While Harper’s “tastes didn’t run to beer or coffee,” he chose to “market himself as the kind of guy who would be happy to linger over a double-double at Tim Hortons or knock back a few ales after a hockey game.” (Indeed, the prime minister wrote a book about hockey last year.) Parties such as the Liberals and left-wing New Democrats didn’t pay much attention at first. When the branding strategy caught fire in the 2006 federal election, they scrambled to get their share of the pie; their shopping baskets were pretty bare, after all. But the Conservatives had already moved out in front, with one of Canada’s smallest minority governments: just 124 out of 308 seats, and 36 percent of the popular vote.