The Shopping Aisles of Democracy: New insights into the consumer approach to campaigning and governance.

In late February of this year, two reporters from Postmedia rocked the Canadian political world with news of an Elections Canada investigation into misleading “robo-calls” in the 2011 federal election. Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher had doggedly pieced together a disturbing tale of misleading, often automated phone calls in Guelph, Ontario, directing voters to the wrong polling stations.

The alleged fraud appeared to work in favour of the ruling Conservative Party and threatened to put a shadow over the election results that had given Prime Minister Stephen Harper his much-desired majority government on May 2, 2011. Subsequent reports, in the days and weeks to follow, would only widen the investigation, so that by the end of March Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, told a House of Commons committee that investigations were under way in no fewer than 200 ridings across the country.

It all seems like the stuff of political fiction—a dark thriller about dirty tricks, complete with tales of “burner” cellphones, hacked party databases and a mysterious operative named “Pierre Poutine.” But it is also the subject of political non-fiction—an academic text, in fact, titled Political Marketing in Canada, which was released earlier this year and which landed with impeccable timing in the midst of this spreading scandal.

The book is a collection of sophisticated, learned research into the nuts and bolts of modern campaigning, aspects too often ignored in Canadian political science, which tends to view politics through the loftier prisms of history, ideology or procedure. The editors and contributors to this volume force us to confront the reality that modern Canadian politics is as much about commercial marketing principles as it is about any of the other more intellectual and less pragmatic views of what drives our political world.

Here is how the book’s editors, Alex Marland, Thierry Giasson and Jennifer Lees-Marshment, put it in the introduction: “The range of concepts once unique to business are now common in politics as political elites look at marketing to offer new ways of engaging with and responding to an increasingly demanding electorate.” In other words, this is politics catapulted out of the ivory tower and into the aisles of your favourite retail chain.

Some Canadians, for instance, might have been surprised to learn this year just how much political parties use the so-called robo-calls and voter databases to do their campaign work. As an ad genius might say: “Telemarketing—it’s not just for duct-cleaning companies anymore.” And it is not just the Conservatives embracing market tools—Liberals and New Democrats have been building their own databases and buying automatic-dialling machinery to communicate with voters.

The political pros in all the major parties have been borrowing these tools from the marketplace for years, guided in large part by the examples being set in the United States, where big money and big players have blazed the trail for highly sophisticated techniques of political marketing. Just as your airline or home renovation store is keen to keep track of your customer preferences, so too are political parties eager to give you advertising or even tax policies especially made for you.

That is an important distinction, by the way: marketing is not advertising. You will learn, reading this book, that advertising is what happens after the product is made; marketing is something larger and different: it is the shaping of the product to suit consumers’ demand. Can you do that in politics, or even in government? After digesting a few chapters ofPolitical Marketing in Canada, one realizes that the answer to that question is, to quote Barack Obama, yes, you can.

This book reveals the Canadian Conservatives to be the most expert at adapting commercial marketing techniques to politics, not the least because of their willingness to see the electorate as a marketplace.

“The political marketing by ‘blue’ Tories (i.e., US Republican sympathizers) in 2006 may have changed the political game in Canada, for though regional clusters remain, the battleground has been altered to Tim Hortons coffee drinkers, Canadian Tire shoppers and the hockey moms of suburbia,” Marland writes in his chapter, “Amateurs versus Professionals.” Is this cynicism or simply a smart common-sense approach? This book, studiously non-partisan and non-judgemental (it is an academic text, after all) lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment, it should be pointed out, is a leading international expert in political marketing, who teaches in New Zealand but first became interested in the topic when studying Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in her home country of Britain. Her contributions to this book—most notably her interview with the former chief marketing strategist for the Canadian Conservatives, Patrick Muttart—are eye-opening glimpses into how political marketers view the electorate.

“Close campaigns are decided by the least informed, least engaged voters,” Muttart told Lees-Marshment. “These voters do not go looking for political news and information. This necessitates brutally simple communication with clear choices that hits the voter whether they like it or not. Journalists and editorialists often complain about the simplicity of political communication, but marketers must respond to the reality that undecided voters are often not as informed or interested as the political and media class are.”

Political purists may clutch at their pearls when they hear that candour from Muttart, but realists have always known that modern campaigns are not fought in the intellectual salons. The contributors to this book, who would all be entirely at home in those salons, have actually done us a service in putting an academic frame around realpolitik. Collectively, they have charted that trajectory of politics out of academia into the marketplace, and then bounced it back into the ivory tower for rigorous, researched analysis.

André Turcotte’s chapter, “Under New Management: Market Intelligence and the Conservative Party’s Resurrection” should be read and memorized by anyone who claims to understand the ruling party’s strategy for campaigning or governance in Canada.

Not enough people have been paying attention, in this reviewer’s opinion, to Turcotte’s revelation of how the Conservatives use polls. This is a party only glancingly interested in those national horse-race figures that transfix the media. Conservatives do not even bother with them, in fact. Bringing market-research intelligence to their political strategy, Turcotte shows us, the Conservatives recognized after their 2004 election defeat that they had to shape their “product” to suit those disengaged voters that Muttart was talking about—the people in a position to decide close races. “The result was that out of a sea of about 23 million eligible voters, the Conservative strategy was able to focus on a pool of about 500,000 voters, which made the difference between victory and defeat … and nationwide nightly campaign tracking was replaced by nightly tracking in winnable ridings and among key groups only.”

Other chapters and contributors show us how marketing is not just a campaign tool, but a way of governing for the Conservatives. Anna Esselment’s chapter, “Market Orientation in a Minority Government,” shows how those of us who cover modern government may be better off reading marketing manuals than dusty old procedural handbooks if we want to understand how our democracy is working.  “Should a market-oriented party (MOP) win an election and form government, it must deliver its product or risk losing re-election … The achievability of the product is crucial to the market-oriented party, as over-promising and under-delivering can threaten a governing party’s chances of remaining in power.”

The Harper government, we will recall, rode to power in 2005–06 on five basic promises: “cleaning up” government, getting tough on law and order, reducing wait times for health care, $100-a-month cheques for parents and cutting the goods and services tax. Esselment’s chapter, without explicitly setting it out this way, forces us to think about whether government is simply a matter of giving people what they want or the more complicated process of giving society what it needs. If government is framed simply as a response to consumer wants, then customers will demand, above all, prompt delivery. And in this way, matters such as Commons debate, parliamentary opposition and economic or media criticism can become mere impediments to the more pressing goal of client service.

This book is the product of a workshop held at a conference of the Canadian Political Science Association in May 2009 at Carleton University. This reviewer, almost by accident, was there. I had wandered into the classroom out of idle curiosity, but remained, glued to the presentations as the first display I had seen of political science for the “real” world where I work. As a political correspondent since the 1980s in Ottawa (with a BA in political science, incidentally), I had been noticing how citizens were increasingly being framed as consumers of democracy. Political marketing, as I learned at this workshop, appeared to be simultaneously a reply and a possible cause for that cultural shift in the electorate. In helping to organize The Toronto Star’s 2011 election coverage, I invited some of the contributors to this book to write a “Shopping for Votes” blog, so that our readers could see the campaign through the political-marketing lens.

The book raises questions—but few answers—about the implications for democracy of the marketing approach to politics. The most pointed one, of course, is whether politicians or governments should be shaping their “product” to suit demands of the voter “market.” Shouldn’t our democracy be more concerned with our higher, collective needs than our individual consumer wants? And where is the room for a pan-Canadian vision when our political professionals are carving up the country into “niche” markets with their own “boutique” taxes and “micro-targeted” policies?

Marketing can be a force for good, this book argues, if it is helping to make governments more responsive to its citizens, and if it is using the tools of the commercial world to make citizens into educated “consumers” of their politics and system of rule. Too often, however, we also learn in various chapters, the marketing techniques have had the effect of enhancing the influence of polls and ad-savvy experts, at the expense of members of Parliament and grassroots members of political parties. And for a style of business that is all about attracting clientele, political marketing has not exactly shone in building the customer base. Voter turnout has been steadily on the decline in the decades since marketing techniques started to be introduced into the democratic mix.

In the book’s carefully balanced confusion, the editors—Marland, Giasson and Lees-Marshment—argue that marketing should be used to enhance efforts to increase voter engagement. Make marketing serve democracy, in other words, and not vice versa. The more we know about the marketing techniques being employed by our political parties and governments, the better we will be able to hold our political class to account for using these tools in cynical or merely power-hungry ways. “A maturation of political marketing practice means that, in time, political actors should be able to reduce their emphasis on salesmanship and pandering as they move toward more of a deliberative, dialogue-seeking citizen-state relationship,” the editors write.

But one has to wonder whether this is an overly optimistic outlook for marketing’s future. Tempted as we may be to blame the political pros for the transformation of our democracy into a supermarket, it is difficult to argue with Muttart’s steely-eyed perspective on the disengaged electorate and hence, on the efforts to get them to the ballot box. The uneducated and uninterested voters have created the demand that political marketing accommodates.

And this takes us all the way back to the robo-calls scandal, which will be still unfolding for many months as Elections Canada carries out its painstaking investigations. Whatever person or persons dreamed up the scheme, it is a telling commentary that they believed it would be so simple to chase Canadians away from their fundamental, democratic entitlement—the right to vote. We may never know how many citizens received such a phone call, shrugged and decided it was too much trouble to get to the ballot box.

Political parties, we learn in this book, have been reaching for the tools of the marketplace in a sustained effort to catch Canadians where they live. Rightly or wrongly, political strategists have concluded they can find the citizenry in the shopping aisles. What’s more, like it or not, the parties most expert in seeing Canadians as shoppers—the Conservatives—have been the most successful.

Political Marketing in Canada, as an academic text with a $90 price tag, will not likely be found in the shopping aisles of the “hardworking, ordinary Canadians” that all the parties have been courting. [Editor’s Note: As of July 1, 2012, this title will also be available in a $32.95 paperback edition.] Nor is it written for that average consumer. It is, however, the first academically solid text produced on political marketing in Canada. In Britain and the United States, there is far more academic literature on this score. Here is hoping that this is the inaugural book in a series of studies into the modern Canadian political “marketplace.” In the meantime, all those who claim to understand modern political strategy, all those pundits and government-relations experts we see on TV, should keep this volume at hand as an essential reference.

Susan Delacourt is a senior political writer with The Toronto Star who will be releasing her own book on political marketing and consumer citizen-ship in Canada in the spring of 2013.

Source : Literary Review of Canada