In her new book Shopping for Votes, veteran political reporter Susan Delacourt has brought to the fore a significant and pivotal force in Canadian politics: the transformation of citizens into shoppers for government. She reveals how the consumer revolution of the 1950’s gradually took over the political realm and traces the history of this evolution. In the 1950’s and 60’s and onward, the populace had more choice and more things for which to shop than ever before. They began to think of themselves as valuable individuals who had a right to have their needs and desires met by a vendor, and gradually, they applied this attitude to politics. The needs of the consumer are short term and by adopting this view, complicit with the political parties who began to market and sell themselves as “products”, they have sacrificed the complex and long term relationship with their political masters which used to value the “public good”. As a result, people are focused on their pocketbooks and not the long term value of a solid politically sophisticated Canada. In fact, every supermarket trend now finds it way into political life. People now learn more from advertising than from traditional media and treat their vote as something that is being bought. Advertising is far more powerful than other ways of speaking. And the wide availability of microdata that reveals demographics about everything from physical location to shopping habits, allows the political parties to target voters as never before.
At first, politicians felt it was demeaning to treat their policies and leaders as commodities to be purchased, but slowly, they adopted marketing and sales just like the commercial world, if more brutal. The appeal, as in commercial advertising, is to the emotional, not the logical, so the focus became the image of the leader which could be more easily and emotionally conveyed. This gave the leader of a party over weaning power as the success of the party depended upon the success of his or her marketable image.
Ms. Delacourt not only describes the change, but names names – the spin doctors who now are central to political life. She describes how Frank Luntz, an American Republican political consultant, was hired by the Reform Party and later popped up giving advice to the Harper Tories. He provided the Tories with a manual for governing. He advised them to put hockey front and centre all the time. Remember the last federal election, when Harper chose to be interviewed in a hockey rink? Now, his book on the history of hockey is about appear at your neighborhood bookstore.
Luntz also advised focusing on taxes in terms of people’s every day existence: the tax on a cup of coffee, the electricity tax, water tax. Result? The reduction in the GST, a popular move that saved very little money in normal households and denied a huge income to the government and came at the expense of policy and a balanced budget.
The Tories have a valuable asset in Patrick Muttart, a conservative political strategist based in the United States and the man in charge of Conservative marketing. He is considered an expert on the behaviour and attitudes of working class voters in English-speaking countries. Mr. Muttart turned the Prime Minister into a product. He monitored and staged every outing. Suddenly backdrops appeared everywhere and the colour of government websites morphed into thinly disguised Tory ads on a blue background. Muttart is not aiming at the informed or the committed voter, but at the 10% who have checked out of politics. For them, political advertising must take hold in seconds and the message must be brutally simple. Thus, the association with Tim Hortons which evokes everyday Canadians, a simple product and hockey all at the same time.
Political advertising is not subject to the same advertising standards that apply to every commercial venture in this country. In fact, in the 2008 election, the Advertising Standards Council put out a notice stating that the kind of advertising emanating from political parties would not be allowed were it subject to their oversight. Ms. Delacourt posits that one step that should be taken is to applied advertising standards to political advertising, an eminently fair suggestion that might curb some of the worst abuses of the truth.
Evan Solomon, in an interview with Ms. Delacourt on CBC’s Power and Politics called this a hell of a book and indeed it is. Susan Delacourt is a fine, accessible and informed writer, one of the premier political journalists of our day.
Susan Delacourt will appear in a Question and Answer session with veteran political advisor Robin Sears on Sunday November 3, at Cafe Postino at 73 Mill Street in Almonte, 2-4 p.m. Beverages and desserts will be served. Tickets are available at Mill Street Books at 52 Mill Street.
$20 buys dessert
$45 buys dessert and a book.