Jennifer Lees-Marshment is a world-wide expert in political marketing who was visiting professor at McGill University in 2009, and who has conducted research and published on Canadian political marketing.
Does political marketing only work if the public don’t really know it is happening?
As academics we often say that the most important political marketing is that which is not seen; it’s the orientation, the philosophy, the thinking or strategy behind what politicians try to do to win votes. But this point is not just a vague ivory tower intellectual one: it is hinting at the importance of politicians being responsive to the public, without just pandering. Put in simple terms, it is about how much politicians really care.
More and more media are discussing significant aspects of how the Canadian parties are using political marketing. The Globe and Mail featured an article on microtargeting (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/micro-targeting-lets-parties-conquer-ridings-one-tiny-group-at-a-time/article1996155/) and CBC radio ran a program on how politicians have targeted ethnic groups and the fine line politicians have to walk between listening and pandering (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/04/19/the-ethnic-vote/). The programme features links to political adverts by the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP targeting specific groups such as south asian, Punjabi, mandarin and chinese voters (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2011/04/19/some-political-ads-targeting-the-ethnic-vote/index.html).
The most interesting part of this excellent media program is the discussion of how voters themselves have reacted, with Avvy Go and the advocacy group called The Colour of Poverty creating an entertaining but serious video complaining about how politicians targeted them as ethnic voters (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5UE0SgN5ic&feature=share). The lyrics of the song talk about them wanting to be Canadian, not ethnic, and thus rejecting elite-imposed segmentation. Another of the complaints raised in CBC radio’s programme is that targeting is only carried out superficially in terms of photo ops rather than policies – so instead of politicians seriously attending to the demands of minority groups, they simply want to be seen to be targeting them. This is not the most effective way to target. Electoral history tells us that landslides and big switches of voters only happen when communication and product targeting is linked: Tony Blair succeeding through his policies to reduce class sizes as well as glossy billboards to appeal to traditional Tory voters in middle England.
But there may also be something else at play here. As awareness of political marketing around the world grows, could it be that the overtness of the Canadian conservatives and liberals using political marketing is in itself a problem? That savvy voters now know when politicians are trying to market them? Could this be one reason that the election result is suddenly so uncertain? As academics we love that a range of media in addition to the Toronto Star are commenting on specific aspects of political marketing, but perhaps when it comes to affecting votes political marketing has become too well known?