Are you a Tim Hortons Canadian or a Starbucks drinker? Do you see yourself as a voter, a consumer or a taxpayer? Where do you land in the Phineas T. Barnum versus John Powers debate? Does your lifestyle make you a “Zoe” or a “Dougie”?
This is the grammar of modern marketing and advertising, and Susan Delacourt tells us that the masterminds of Canadian political parties care more about which category to slot us into than about how we see the issues of the day. Or apparently that’s how the most successful parties operate. In Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them, Delacourt draws from her years of daily reporting on Canada’s politicians and their advisers to argue that consumer marketing has infiltrated our politics, turning democracy’s once-lofty regard for the electorate into nothing more than a vision of consumers to be manipulated.
It is a terrific look behind the curtain at how political parties now operate and sell themselves. Delacourt is not merely focused on how present-day politics employ the tools of marketing. She tells us how we got here, taking us through the evolution of how marketing has found its way to the very heart of Canadian politics. Shopping for Votes fittingly starts in the years following the Second World War: Delacourt cites Mackenzie King as being the first to micro-target votes with the introduction of the baby bonus system.
She then maps the rise in the consumer culture against the track records of successful political parties, from the role of Toronto ad men like Martin Goldfarb and Keith Davey in the dominance of the federal Liberal Party from the mid-’60s to mid-’80s, to the emergence of the Conservative Big Blue Machine in Ontario that found its own marketing gurus in Dalton Camp and Norman Atkins. Every technological advance or new theory on how to get inside voters’ heads has precipitated a generational struggle within the parties themselves, pitting an old guard distrustful of new techniques against the younger evangelists of new possibilities (well chronicled in Delacourt’s portrait of Allan Gregg’s disruption of the federal Conservatives’ operation). And it leads eventually to the two young stars of the current Conservative government, Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, who she says have married a sophisticated — and to Delacourt an overly cynical — understanding of political marketing to the raw power of Reform’s western populism.
Delacourt sees a link between declining voter engagement and this rise in the marketing world’s penetration of politics. Her thesis sets up a chicken-and-egg debate for the reader: Has the growth of marketing techniques led to a backlash and disgust with politics that drives down voter turnout? Or have voters, disillusioned by what politics has delivered, distracted by cheap entertainment or too busy to care, simply made marketing more important to parties struggling to capture what’s left?
Delacourt pulls her reader in all directions on this debate until the dying pages of the book, when she sides with those who blame marketing for our democratic woes. To make her argument, she singles out the approach of Harper’s Conservatives and their focus on reaching the crucial 10 percent of the population that can be encouraged to turn out to vote but that doesn’t follow the news and may therefore be less familiar with issues. This is where marketing becomes vital, she writes. This minority of Canadians that can hold the key to winning elections is best reached through blunt pitches via television advertising or direct mail.
To make her point, Delacourt cites the work of Patrick Muttart, a former deputy chief of staff to Harper who brought new political techniques to chase votes from this unsophisticated electorate. “What are you supposed to do when you are down to the final weeks of the campaign and you are competing for the attention of the least informed, the least engaged and the least intense voters who are going to decide the outcome of an election campaign?” she quotes Muttart as saying. “This is why political marketers have to be so blunt and so direct.”
To Delacourt, this is the wickedness of marketing as applied to politics, a sign of the sickness of our democracy. If only politics had not descended to such gutter tactics, she argues, voters would not be turned off and would still be showing up at the polls to vote.
Her attack betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how political parties communicate with the public. What Delacourt sees — and decries — is not marketing. What political parties undertake is, more precisely, public affairs communications.
This is not semantics. In practice, the difference is critical. Without question the current public affairs practitioner has learned from the marketer, employing some of the same tools of the trade, such as focus groups. But the actions of the modern political machine are different and more precise than those of marketing. While marketers and public affairs professionals would both use a screwdriver, the marketers would use a flathead and the public affairs professionals, a Phillips.
As public affairs practitioners (disclosure: our company once employed Patrick Muttart), we tend to shun the marketing approach that directs its messages where the masses are. Rather than trying to convert the masses, we focus on finding and engaging like-minded people.
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If voters can be placed along bell curves, the middle bulge is where those who are undecided, ambivalent or disengaged reside. But public affairs practitioners are interested in the admittedly fewer people who fall at each end of the spectrum: let’s call them the ones on both edges of the curve those who are “with you” or “against you.” In politics, this is where the action is. Public affairs professionals and political parties home in on those in the “with you” band, using many of the same tools as marketers but with a message aimed at trying to get them to exercise that vote. To the public affairs professional, even if you have a product they want, why chase those in the disengaged, stay-at-home middle who are not going to vote?
Meanwhile, ever-more sophisticated voter tracking and the rise of social media have revolutionized how we can reach these groups. Swaths of data about voters and their preferences, previously too expensive to collect and analyze, are now available. With this information, micro-targeting becomes possible. Technology connects people, and we are able to identify and contact people in communities across Canada that were once ignored or abandoned as too hard to reach. The technology allows us to make cloth out of thread, turning what were once seen as atomized voters into a constituency.
The gum marketer is trying to sell more gum to a series of people in a territory. The public affairs practitioner is building a virtual territory for gum chewers to congregate in.
The big difference between marketing and public affairs is that marketers typically deal in messages that can be challenged. Hence they push lines like “Big Macs are better than Whoppers because our beef is better.” Or “Whoppers are better than Big Macs because our beef is fresher and antibiotic free.” But public affairs practitioners are trying not simply to change voter choice within a category, but to destroy the whole category itself. The public affairs approach is to say, “Eating beef will kill you.” Or, as the Liberals found out, “He didn’t come back for you.”
For this reason, political operatives focus on motivation over choice. Using focus groups (a tool admittedly swiped from marketers), public affairs practitioners search to understand what drives voters. This enables them to choose words, either for or against a cause, to see what works with the target. It may well surprise readers of Shopping for Votes to learn that the Conservatives did not even bother with national polls after 2005 but rather just looked at their targeted constituencies and regular focus group sessions on the intangible plane of emotions and values. (This tidbit comes to Delacourt from Muttart, who, we narcissistically like to think, learned that approach here.)
With election campaigns being short compared with product launches, and with so many messages muddling our daily lives, is it any wonder that political advertising has to jump up and smack the viewer? This isn’t a defence of the morality of negative advertising. But as Delacourt correctly points out, the appropriate question is not whether the voter likes an ad, but rather what message they take away from it.
Delacourt is bang on when she ascribes our short attention spans to a rapid, media-driven consumption culture. Perhaps more people would be interested in politics and would therefore vote more if they weren’t so obsessed by buying stuff. But she fails to examine whether our embarrassingly low election turnouts would be even worse if political parties did not use these techniques to reach people the way they want to be reached. The mass appeal strategies of old targeted a massive middle ground of voters who now consistently say they are indifferent to politics. But social media affords political parties a chance to appeal directly to people who, research shows, may be open to a pitch on the issues.
How is the latter not serving democracy?
Mackenzie King knew that. He looked for needs within that segment of the population he needed to win power, those soldiers coming home and factory women now out of work, and served them with the baby bonus. They responded by giving him their vote. What King understood then, even without the benefits of all the data we have at our fingertips today, is that voters must be offered a reason to show up at the ballot box. That’s not marketing. That’s politics.