Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book Review: Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt

It was convenient timing that had me reading Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them during the 2015 federal election. Delacourt lays out in a clear narrative how marketing and advertising has changed politics over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There is an interesting intersection in this book between changes in Canadian society, culture and politics. The rise of consumerism caused all three to adapt. One would impact upon another and force the other to change further. The introduction of basic marketing principles gave parties a distinct edge in the 1950s and 60s, but then as voters became cynical politics was forced to follow.

A deep dive into how politics and marketing became one.

One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it has given me a knew lens through which to look at Canadian politics. As I alluded to above, the cultural shift towards a distrust of institutions and politics could be more accurately found in consumerism than politics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's brutal central control is rooted in his understanding of consumer-citizen politics and what it takes to succeed in a world of brands, slogans and value propositions.

Delacourt makes frequent reference to a certain category of Canadians, the Tim Horton's voter. Tim Horton's successful marketing and massive market share has made it a national symbol. It also typifies a certain class of voter. Middle class/lower-middle class, without airs, not particularly engaged in politics. This cohort is a significant portion of the Canadian electorate. Swinging as much as 10% of the electorate can be the difference between third-party and governing majority. The parties have used market research and databases to slice and dice the electorate. They pinpoint the voters they know are in their camp, target them, find the poachable groups and pull them into winning coalitions.

The consumer-citizen (a concept and phrase that makes my skin crawl) has resulted in some idiotic policy. The example that comes to mind from Shopping for Votes is the snowmobile tax credit. Rural outdoors-people was a target group and so the Conservatives developed a policy directly to appeal to them. Governing is secondary in the focus-grouped, messaged-controlled reality of the era of consumer politics.

In her book Delacourt presents feasible explanations for the 2011 Conservative majority and the Orange Wave in Quebec. In marketing terms a more traditional advertising campaign launched the NDP into first in Quebec, while modern micro-targeting brought the Conservatives to majority. At the conclusion of the book Delacourt suggests that all three parties are now using the same strategies. Perhaps it will merely come down who can most effectively micro-target and mobilize voters.

The sad reality is that voters do process candidates and parties like products in many ways. Brand loyalty and partisanship are not so dissimilar. Commercial products have become more political as well, arguing that they stand for sets of values and not simple products/services for profit. The idealistic, classic liberal view of democracy is not rooted in reality, sadly. How candidates look, sound and any number of other obscure items can shape a voter's intention. I tease my mom because she's leaning towards voting NDP, but doesn't like Tom Mulcair's beard. On the other hand the beard is becoming part of the brand and being taken on by NDP partisans as a fun symbol

I would strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of how Canadian politics (and other modern democracies) work. This book is similar to Sasha Issenberg's The Victory Lab, but far more accessible and better framed in the world of politics than the opaque worlds of academia and advertising. Check it out, and be warned that the it might be hard swallow if you have high-minded values of democracy.

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