The Long Form Census and Brand Command

This month I did two seemingly unrelated, but actually closely related, things. I completed the census – long form no less. And I read Alex Marland’s path-breaking book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control.

This is the first time I can remember receiving the long form, so because of the controversy I was very interested. It took me about 30 minutes. As I duly completed it, I asked myself several times “Why do they want to know this?” I thought the government’s advertising campaign’s answer – to plan for public services in your community – was both relevant and sufficient. And I thought the advertising campaign was informative, unobtrusive, and non-partisan – what government advertising should be.

With Brand Command, Alex Marland has established his bona fides as one of Canada’s major scholars of public sector communications. The book has two objectives. First, it is a study of government communications at both the political and bureaucratic levels, encompassing a whole range of topics from political messaging to the communications function in government to the Canada Wordmark to government webpages. He has added a key aspect to the study of public administration, and any future public administration text will have to devote more space to communications and refer to Marland’s work.

Marland’s second objective was to “focus on Stephen Harper’s leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada” (p. 21). Marland dug deep into the Harper Government’s record on branding and political communication, poring over Tom Flanagan’s voluminous archival records (or fonds) stored at the University of Calgary and interviewing a total of 77 people who work in governmental communications including politicians, political staff, public servants, and members of the media. I was impressed that Marland listed all of the interviewees (some of whom preferred to be anonymous and were denoted by numbers) and referenced each interview in the text. He thus combined energetic research with rigorous reporting of his results.

Marland’s research on branding is related to my own on narrative. Marland includes in his definition of branding a logo, a slogan, and a colour palette, which “together form the basis of a brand story that engages audiences” (p. 37). My perspective focuses on the stories that politicians tell: their life stories, stories about decisions they made, and stories about decisions they will make in the future. But, I do recognize that logos, slogans, and colours reinforce the stories. Furthermore, I use the term counter-narratives to refer to stories political parties tell to delegitimize their opponents, while Marland uses the term debranding to refer to “the harshest and most personalized forms of negative advertising” (p. 367), so here too we are on the same page.

Marland had no use for Harper Government practices such as intentionally blurring the Conservative Party of Canada and Government of Canada brands; massive spending on advertising about priority programs, often before the necessary legislation had been enacted; central message control of the cabinet; incessant photo ops; and its permanent election campaign, especially nonstop debranding. His book can be read as a powerful critique of the Harper Government’s practices, which provides the basis for the set of reforms he proposes in the last chapter.

Had Marland been able to publish his book while Harper was still in power, it would have, in a sense, been complete – the last word about the Harper Government’s abuse of power through branding. And it would have been seized upon by Harper’s numerous critics.

Unfortunately for Marland the book didn’t appear until mid-2016, by which time Justin Trudeau had been in power for several months. Not only did Marland incorporate a few references to Justin Trudeau, but he felt he had to push his argument farther, claiming that branding is something all governments including Trudeau’s do. This he writes at the outset “Brand Command argues that the cases of centralization are systemic, not individualistic. In this light, Trudeau’s pledge to empower cabinet and buck the forces of centralization seems idealistic.” (p. 17) At this point, I think Marland’s argument over-reaches.

My interpretation of the 2015 federal election is that one of the factors that elected Trudeau and defeated Harper is that Canadians were fed up with Harper’s emphasis on branding, politicization of government messaging, and thuggish attack ads. Voters were looking for something different, for sunny ways. I have some evidence to back this up in terms of the difference between the Liberal and Conservative campaign ads in terms of both their content and their reception on social media. (This is the new narrative research I wrote about in my previous post). Furthermore, the NDP serve as something of a control, because their ads were more negative than the Liberals’.

Treasury Board President Scott Bryson has just introduced a package of government communications reforms that respond to voter sentiment and that also show that the parties are not all alike. So a measure of public civility is being restored at the federal level, but it reduces the generality of Marland’s argument.

The return of the compulsory long-form census was handled in a way that shows a restoration of public civility as well as an attempt to restore evidence-based policy-making. In this, the better angels of our nature are on display, and the excesses of Harper-style brand command have been curbed. A true good news story.

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