In many ways, the thesis of Alex Marland is nothing new: governments and political parties have strict control of their messaging as they present themselves as brands to be sold to voters. Marland, a political science professor at Memorial University, brings scholarly treatment to the topic, with everything good and bad that entails.
Marland explores how governments filter their communications through a “branding lens” and his focus is on the decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper. It rises above other recent offerings on the topic by blaming not Harper, but the nature of modern politics. Message control is not the trait of one political leader; Justin Trudeau banned pro-lifers from even running for the Liberals in 2015.
The Coles Notes version of the book is simple: in the age of 24/7 news and social media, “disciplined communications management” is necessary for the leadership of governments and political parties to present a coherent and manageable face of their brand, usually that of the leader. Marland argues that this is an affront to democracy because it diminishes the important role of individual Parliamentarians.
Marland shows how “the Centre” – a few, well-placed political elites – controlled every message and image of the Conservative branding exercise, which attempted to conflate the government and the party. The most infamous of these were the ubiquitous Economic Action Plan advertisements on billboards and in the media. What Marland does not acknowledge is that these ads seemed to spur backlash and, if October 2015 is any indication, were entirely ineffective at winning over voters to the Conservative brand.
If Marland comes up short, it is in his own anti-democratic tendency to marginalize voters as passive and marginal players in Canada’s political drama. The academic seems unaware of the truism in advertising circles that marketers cannot manufacture the desire, but rather tap into it. Brand Command is an important book despite its limitations. It is not enough for citizens to complain about the obvious efforts of government to manage their brand just like Coca Cola and McDonalds do; we must understand the thinking that treats political parties as consumer products to be sold rather than vehicles to deliver the people and ideas that should govern our country. In that, Marland provides ample assistance.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim and author of The Dauphin: The Truth about Justin Trudeau.