Harper and the Hockey Sweater
Kenneth M. Cosgrove Associate Professor of Government and Graduate Program Director
Suffolk University, Boston, MA, USA.
It should not be shocking to see the Prime Minister pictured wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey on the Star’s Landing page this morning. Doing this visually links Mr. Harper with Canada’s national game and, ideally, stirs the proper emotions in his audience target. This is similar to U.S. politics, in that he is visually presenting us with an image that will predispose us to view him in a certain way.
The choice of hockey as a visual cue is hardly accidental. It packages Mr. Harper in a way that is very much in keeping with the argument made by American scholar Daniel Boorstin's work, The Image. It suggests the rise of packaged reality and pseudo-events as the big thing -- as mass-based consumerist values came to dominate in the United States (and by extension, over time, elsewhere in the world)
It is also very much in keeping with the advice that Mr. Harper received much earlier in his career from his USA based political consultants. While I actually know some Canadians who do not like hockey, I have never met one who would actually root against the country in any sport. So using the Team Canada hockey imagery is an attempt to visually say to Canadians: “I am one of you and I share your interests and values” rather than debating the minutae of policy or ethics or personal management style.
Rather than getting bogged down in detail, better to try to shape the public discourse through the use of emotionally laden images that require little from the viewer other than to take a couple of seconds of time to glance at them.
Proper visual presentation is very important to building an effective brand because it can sum up the product, political or otherwise, most efficiently for the audience. While an audience can be cued to feel a certain way, these feelings are as much the result of socialization and environmental cues as much as they are an individual campaign’s work. What appears to matter is how well a campaign can tap into the social narratives and values that are extant and hitch a ride along with those.
Visual cues can produce powerful emotions and tap into deeper narratives as two hockey examples can show. Consider what the average NHL fan living in the GTA (or Boston for that matter) feels when he/she sees a red capital C with a blue border enclosing a white letter "H" in its center. Then contrast that with what people in the Montreal area and the many fans of Les Glorieux living across Canada and in New England feel.
The visual itself provides no particular emotion but it sums up a set of deeper emotions that are part of a narrative constructed over a long period of time -- but into which new events can occasionally burst. A second NHL example can be summed up in the person of Leafs' player Phil Kessel and the negative response that he will receive in Boston for the rest of his professional career in said city. None of this is personal in terms of disliking the young man, it is all based on visual images and perceptions. Mr. Kessel did not manage the visual imagery or build a narrative surrounding his departure from our fair city and is booed relentlessly upon his every return. In contrast, when Thomas Kaberle was traded from the Leafs to the Bruins, public perceptions and images had been well managed and Mr. Kablerle received a nice tribute upon his return to the ACC with the Bruins.
What the Harper team is attempted to do is manage its visuals in a way that positions Mr. Harper as a representative of average Canadians and as a part of a winning team for Canada moving forward. In doing this, using the right visuals and the management of imagry is very important because both can say to an audience that its members should or should not be interested in this product and can shape the feelings that the consumer can have toward the product. The hockey example clarifies this because, while we in Boston are very interested in both the Montreal Canadiens and Mr. Kessel, we are not emotionally engaged in the same way as are the residents of the cities in which the team and the player toil. Mr. Harper is trying to sum up a complicated reality for an audience that he hopes to have vote for him in a short term. Visual cues and positioning like appearing in a Team Canada hockey sweater are key means of doing so quickly. He is doing this because if he doesn’t, as the two hockey examples show, other entitles like the media and his political opponents will be happy to do so on his behalf.