Political Communication in Canada

Political Communication in Canada


Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland) – continued:

Brand won the $50,000 2017 Canadian Donner Book Prize.

Any communications strategy will vary according to the material or information at hand, the approach to using that information, the media available for employing the data, and the logic and structures specifically correlated with that media. Thus, before we even do anything on a communications strategy, the content, approach, media available and its forms, must all be grasped. Taken together, the above will almost but not quite dictate the techniques available to be employed in a communications strategy, techniques which also must be identified, analyzed and understood. Once we understand the material and the media, our approach and techniques available, the utilization for its most efficacious impact must be assessed and then translated into strategies and tactics.

Our communications age is identifiable by a unique set of materials previously unavailable: mass data bases, public opinion research and market intelligence.  However, in politics only a small range of mass data is relevant. We have no use for mass spectral databases available through spectrometry that help astronomers identify planets which might support life. Nor are communication junkies interested in the mass collection of DNA material used to identify sources for organ transplants or to trace one’s ancestry. Nor, on a more human scale, and surprisingly, is there much interest in the mass data used to assess performance, a data base popularized in the baseball movie, Moneyball, which perhaps best made the pollster, Nathan Silver, a household name. In the field of electoral politics and governance, the focus is on human predispositions, preferences and priorities; the collection of mass data allows pollsters to mine this platinum.

It was rather surprising, then, when I could not find one reference to Nathan Silver in Brand or to Nathan’s own famous brand, Five Thirty Eight or 538. There are many discussions of public opinion research, the sampling of a cross section of the population to measure the public’s views of issues, policies, parties and leaders. However, if you look up the long list of references used, there is no citation of The Signal and the Noise, Silver’s account of the techniques he developed and used, including mathematical algorithms, to very accurately predict the outcome of the American election in 2012, an election that was purportedly too close to call.

To adumbrate, there is no discussion of mathematical modelling as a technique for more accurately assessing how preferences and priorities of voters can be assessed to interpret their voting preferences. Silver proved that opinion surveys and focus groups were inadequate. If you do not seek out certain types of data in the mass data bases, or even try to develop those much deeper data bases, if you do not employ the more sophisticated techniques of mathematical analysis, then you may not be able to comprehend how Stephen Harper attempted to manipulate the public. Marland’s nostalgic approach will not likely reveal the shortcomings and superficiality of both his and Harper’s approach and their inherent limitations as well questionable results.

The market research, the quantitative and qualitative data, can include, in addition to polls, opinion surveys and focus groups, a wider spectrum from role playing to census data analysis. However, if a political party simply maps its political program onto this market intelligence to prioritize issues, the results may be shallow and misdirected. One of the shortcomings of Marland’s book is his failure to adopt a much more critical model that could also help explain Harper’s failures.

I think there is an explanation for this shortcoming. Alex Marland, like Stephen Harper, was never really interested in the role data has played and continues to play in the daily lives of citizens that allow those citizens to better understand, grasp and operate in the world. He, like Harper, was preoccupied with advertising, with a market and sales orientation, that is with manipulating the public to buy a specific brand in a crowded field. Advertising, as Marland acknowledges, is the effort to influence the opinion, choices and behaviour of the voting public. It is not an effort to understand those choices and help guide them for purposes of self-realization. Hence, the focus on market intelligence and the willingness and determination to use that market intelligence for sales purposes to stimulate emotional reactions rather than an effort to understand and identify public anxieties.

Marland in his book clearly understands the difference between a sales and market orientation (see p. 33), but as much as he wants to have the latter supersede the former, as long as the concerns of citizens are tabulated within a market frame, that is, where mass data is used to sell one’s party as best able to address issues of concern, then the goal will simply be developing pain relief and then advertising why Aleve is better than Tylenol. There will be no real effort to understand the underlying sources of that pain and the various available ways to address that pain. Responding to pain (or desire) is not the same as understanding its roots.

For Marland, the message is the media – the mass and new social media available to engage in marketing a political party. Mass media refers to traditional forms, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, whereas social media refers to the digital media and internet-based applications where users as much as professionals create the content, as in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Wikipedia. Marland subscribes to the Canadian school of communication analysis of Harold Innis, Donald Creighton and Marshall McLuhan who held that, “communications technology is more influential than its content.” (p. 51) Whether the issue was the fur trade, the St. Lawrence River (versus the Erie Canal) or modern mass print and then electronic followed by digital media, the nature of that media will shape not only how we communicate, but what is communicated.

Media in the digital age emphasizes speed, unlimited expansion, almost instant access, as well as an ephemeral quality. It is decentralized and purportedly lacks an authentic source of authority to adjudicate between and among contending interpretations. Hence, it is easily subject to manipulation and facilitates wide swings in voter response. However, when Marland quotes my friend Peter Russell, who pointed to the “emergence of political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power,” (p. 52) he was really reciting what had been the case before the prominence of social media. The new social media allows communication to be far more targeted, to eschew advertising in favour of the development of images, scenes and actions that try to evade the sense of advertising as manipulation.

While Marland seems to grasp the critical differences between social and historic mass media, it is in terms of the latter that he frames his approach to the former.  Manipulation of voters rather than a dialogue among citizens of different political stripes is the emphasis when discussing narrowcasting and microtargeting, sound and image bites, and spin. Media logic is defined as the view that institutional actors change their behaviour in response to how journalists gather and report news, but Donald Trump, the master tweeter and traditional rabble-rouser in public rallies, seems to totally belie this presumption.

If we shift to the analysis of technique rather than material content, then branding and framing are perhaps the two most important. Marland, while not ignoring framing, emphasizes branding. “Framing,” he claims, “is narrow whereas branding is all-encompassing.” A brand is the result of the entirety of all framing. “Branding is addictive, it is circular and it is a seemingly unstoppable force.” Further, Marland argues that, “A branding lens is a good theoretical tool because it offers predictive power and an explanatory mechanism beyond left/right ideology.”  

However, I will start with framing and I trust it will become self-evident why I do so. Thus, building infrastructure can be framed in terms of higher taxes or critical long term investments. Marihuana use can be framed as a law and order or as a health and consumer enjoyment issue. The Conservative government initiated bills to increase penalties for drug distribution whereas the Liberals initiated steps to decriminalize the smoking of pot and regulate its growth and distribution.

In their attack ads, Conservatives accused Liberals of encouraging the sale of marihuana to children, whereas the Liberals denounced giving criminal records to individuals who were no danger to the public, especially when scientific evidence demonstrated that pot had health benefits, particularly in pain relief, and did not cause nearly the amount of harm of alcohol and tobacco, two legalized forms of drug sales for pleasure purposes. The Conservatives used public funds from Health Canada to advance their agenda while ignoring and even suppressing scientific input, much to the chagrin of Marland who deplores the use of public funds for partisan gain.

Moralizing, however much one might agree with it, is no substitute for in-depth analysis. Again, it is a surprise when reading Marland’s discussion of framing that there is no reference to the Berkeley linguist, the high priest of understanding political framing, George Lakoff, and his bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant. (His previous volume, Moral Politics, is a broader and more in-depth study.) It is noteworthy that, whereas Marland subordinated framing to branding as the overarching mode of synthesis, Lakoff insists that politicians, to be successful, must integrate their daily discussions on policy issues into an overall philosophy of governance in terms of fundamental principles that frame the debate. It is also noteworthy that Marland defends the priority of branding because of its predictive power, but it is George Lakoff who has the stellar reputation of predicting outcomes of presidential elections accurately.

Lakoff traced the rhetorical edge Republican presidential candidates take with respect to the underlying philosophical debate between paternalism and maternalism, between strict discipline versus nurturing in raising children. The former is associated with limited government and an emphasis on individual responsibility with priority given to defence, law and order and the responsibility of the head of a household for bringing an income into the family and ensuring prosperity. Poverty results from lack of initiative. Social welfare is counterproductive as it undermines self-reliance and fosters dependence. It was easy for Stephen Harper to marry this frame to a branding strategy based on discipline, control and micromanagement.

In contrast, a nurturing government aims at helping individuals maximize their potential while providing a safety blanket when life deals a damaging blow. Therefore, the stress is on providing equality of opportunity as well as a cushion. Since poll after poll indicates that the majority of Canadians favour the latter frame, that the latter serves their self-interest, why do electorates put paternalistic governments in power?

As Lakoff explains, it is because voters decide based more on framing an issue in terms of moral identity rather than self-interest. The Liberals (and the New Democrats) base their party platforms on serving the interests of the citizens of Canada. The Conservatives fight on a foundation of moral self-identity, really three contradictory identities, two of which are dominant: the tough, aggressive free enterpriser and the community conservative. There is also a peripheral moral superego stemming from a doctrine of moral virtues, which is where I suspect Marland is rooted.

The frame, the timing and the communication of that frame, not the discipline and control of delivering a message (the brand), helps determine outcomes. When Liberals or New Democrats or Democrats in the U.S. push only the issue of self-interest, they undermine a larger frame for liberalism. Success depends on enhancing that larger frame. Bernie Sanders understood that; Hilary Clinton and her campaign did not. Trudeau and his campaign understood that; Mulcair did not.

It is one thing to inverse the tension between framing and branding, between the general structure and the image or core message left with a citizen. It is another not to indicate that he is doing this in the face of the dominant lexicon. But the inversion does offer a clue to his position that stresses advertising, media management and manipulation versus a position that insists on the priority of establishing the basic principles upon which you stand. The brand should reflect principles instead of allowing the principles to exist as a by-product of an effort at branding.

Look at what Marland stresses: brand ambassadors rather than self-critical reflection, marketing, as if a political agenda was simply a shopping list in which political goods and services substituted for consumer ones. Very few consumer advertisers engage in distraction, defamation and attempts to de-brand the opposition or competition. Is consumer motivation an equivalent to voter mobilization? Why do we not call advertising partisan and why do we not label it as propaganda? Politics and a consumer culture occupy two different realms. We distinguish branding from framing, the consumer world from the political one, rather than melding them. When we make political reporting a form of infotainment and turn it into a realm of alt-facts and scandal mongering, often tied to pseudo-events, we pervert the field of politics.

While Marland is clearly aware of how branding works as well as how it was reflected in the Harper government, he seems to endorse sound and image bites as necessary outcomes of the need to retain mastery of the process through centralized control and the avoidance of tumult. The consequence of a politician who is great at simplifying and communicating his brand but lacks the discipline and the control elements in place to manage tumult, as can be seen if one compares the effort executed by the dry-as-dust Stephen Harper and the flamboyant mendacious narcissist, Donald Trump.

One cannot imagine Donald adopting a “Whole of Government” (WOG) approach to both governance and communicating a message, but, unlike Harper, Trump really runs a permanent political campaign. Marland seems to believe that permanent campaigning and control to ensure the communication stays on point are both outcomes as a result of prioritizing, but the Harper regime indicated that discipline and control could be one outcome and turning the project of governance into a permanent campaign could be another.

Top down centralized control may be necessary if you are going to turn politics into branding, but if politics is to be based on principles arrived at through reflection and debate, principles reflected in a common frame for a variety of approaches and outcomes that share only a family resemblance, then it may be preferable to work for a politics of dialogue and persuasion rather than a politics of top down messaging. With all of Marland’s proposals for fixing the system by, for example, separating government versus party branding (repaint the Liberal colours) and other distinctly side issues, his efforts of analysis of the communication strategies of the Harper government may be industrious and enormously detailed and documented, but given his own intellectual frame, he only delivers laboratory mice rather than significant policies for the political process.

Marland fails to show why the Harper style of governing is a necessary output of prioritizing branding, even if it is one possible outcome of the effort. Marland also cannot demonstrate how the analysis of the new media and new modes of communication necessitates a position prioritizing top-down versus bottom-up governance as was used in the Bernie Saunders campaign.

A volume which appears on the surface to be a critique of the Harper regime in defence of democratic principles turns out to be an apologia arguing for tweaks to the inconsequential, such as getting the government to publish the costs of photo-ops or changing the political colours of the Liberal Party. It is not inevitable that message consistency will be interpreted in the same monochromatic manner as was offered by Harper, or that, in politics, control will always emerge supreme as distinct from consent to pursue common purposes. If Marland wants to congratulate himself for seeing past and through personalities to uncover the structure and nature of contemporary communications beneath it, then he will have to be far more self-critical in understanding the connection between his conclusions and the intellectual frame he adopted in approaching the subject matter. Like Paul Rand in the United States, he is a principled nineteenth century liberal, one who imposes an ideology on contemporary communications, just as Harper imposed “tight communications discipline to ensure conformity.”


With the help of Alex Zisman