Why Stephen kisses Laureen
(Photo credit: Chris Wattie, Reuters. Source: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/thewest/Harper+goes+Bollywood/4585024/story.html)
Alex Marland (Memorial University) has published about political marketing in the Journal of Public Affairs, political talk radio in Media, Culture and Society, and about Newfoundland nationalism in the International Journal of Canadian Studies.
Did you see Laureen Harper’s Bollywood dance? Have you noticed that from the outset of the campaign that Stephen and Laureen Harper have been spending a lot of time together publicly? That she is present at photo ops? That they often kiss publicly?
There is more to this than celebrity-style gossip. Commenting on Mrs. Harper’s presence does not mean entering the private lives of our politicians, which tends to be out of bounds in Canadian political discourse. No, there is something strategic at play here, and it’s nothing sinister. Rather, Conservative strategists have put their fingers on something that works.
Like many leaders Stephen Harper has long had an image problem. He has lots of strengths, but shoring up his weaknesses is the job of image managers, who will tell you that you can only package the product you have. In other words, you have to work with what you’ve got.
In Mr. Harper’s case his wife seems to be the ying to his yang insofar as public images are concerned. He is cold, she is warm; he is aloof, she is outgoing; he is media-shy, she is media-friendly; he is partisan, she is apolitical. Including Mrs. Harper in photo-ops nicely addresses so many needs:
- she is photogenic and so refreshingly human in such a scripted bubble-like media environment;
- she likely resonates with female voters, whom have long been an Achilles heel of Stephen Harper and the conservative/individualistic ideology generally;
- unlike her husband, she probably does not generate anger among any segments of the electorate, even those who are fearful of a Conservative majority government;
- she has fans among Liberal and NDP politicos (maybe Bloc too, but I can’t be sure);
- she is widely liked amongst the press corps, whom have had an antagonistic relationship with her husband;
- she projects a First Lady status, which makes Stephen Harper seem more presidential, but does so in a Michelle Obama way rather than a Mila Mulroney manner;
- she plays well with the Conservative party faithful, especially when the Harpers’ children are included in photo-ops which communicates that compared with the other party leaders only they represent family values and concerns;
- she is a sharp contrast to Michael Ignatieff’s wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, whose presence could potentially add to Mr. Ignatieff’s image weaknesses of elitism and of ‘just visiting’ Canada; and
- Laureen Harper is a subtle reminder to Canadians concerned about Stephen Harper’s concentration of power that, like Aline Chrétien was with Jean Chrétien, she is likely a sharp political mind who is a good sounding board for the prime minister.
All of this is related to something called celebrity transfer. That is, when a celebrity endorses someone or something, the recipient becomes associated with the characteristics of that celebrity. It’s why athletes and Hollywood types are paid big bucks to endorse products – we think the products are better and thus are more likely to buy them. And it’s why politicians fall over opportunities to hobnob with celebrities. Think Paul Martin and Bono.
Laureen Harper has pep. The media seem to love her. She is a marketer’s dream. And in a world where personality politics often trumps policy, the Conservatives are rightly engaging one of their biggest assets in this campaign.
(Note: Perhaps a case could be made for Jack Layton and Olivia Chow, but it is my impression that they are not campaigning together the way that they did in past campaigns)