The political year in Canada has been a whirlwind. The surprise election of a wildly popular, poster-boy prime minister not only set political pulses racing but has reinvigorated the notion of “Brand Canada” too, both at home and abroad.
Justin Trudeau’s election and the campaign that preceded it marked a change in how politics is both advertised and reported in the country. Trudeau’s opponents attacked him, portraying him as “Just not ready” to be prime minister. His response was positive: listing the failings in the country that he was “not ready” to tolerate any longer. And it worked. The TV campaign is now regarded as one of the most successful in recent political history in Canada. It was produced by independent advertising agency Bensimon Byrne, spearheaded by David Rosenberg.
Rosemary Barton is a journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and hosts the flagship daily news programme Power and Politics. She witnessed Canada’s longest general election campaign in more than a century up close.
So how do you sell politics and how do you report it in a revitalised political climate? Barton and Rosenberg sat down to unpick the challenges and the opportunities of Canada’s new political moment.
Rosemary Barton: I think there’s a uniquely Canadian approach in the way we cover politics in this country. We tend not to stray into people’s private lives. It’s much more based on what politicians are doing, what they’re promising and whether they’re delivering on their promises. That’s changed now though, I think because of the particular fascination with this prime minister.
David Rosenberg: Well when it comes to political advertising, particularly negative advertising, while they’re not explicitly based on politicians’ private lives, the vitriol in these ads speaks to character and therefore to the personal. Former prime minister Stephen Harper used it very effectively and in fact tried to do it with Trudeau himself.
RB: I’d say that those attack ads actually helped Trudeau because they created this constant narrative of expectation around him. And those expectations were quite low so he had to do very little to overcome them.
DR: But for the Conservatives, it backfired. I think the Harper attack ads against Trudeau…
RB: …The ones with the “Just not ready” slogan?
DR: Yes. They failed. The message wasn’t genuine. When they’re done properly, negative ads work. They’re effective. But they’ve got to be rooted in a certain truth about a candidate. In this case, ultimately, they didn’t ring true.
DR: When we brought our focus groups together and conducted our research into what people were feeling we found that when people went to Trudeau’s rallies and saw him in the debates, saw his leadership qualities with their own eyes, they felt that his own story was genuine. And they came to their own conclusions about whether Justin was ready or not to be prime minister.
RB: I’m no advertising expert but yes, I think the tone of the attack ads misread the public mood. I understand why the Conservatives did it: it had worked very effectively for them previously.
DR: But I think Trudeau showed a particular kind of strength in rebutting those attacks head on and we wanted to capture that in our own ad campaign. We only wanted to work with a positive message.
RB: I’ve never really seen the kind of engagement we saw during the last election before. It was the longest election campaign we’ve ever had in Canada and people’s interest really didn’t fall away. It was sustained. And that’s carried on after the election too. There’s a personal connection people still feel towards him.
DR: So much of that is about branding, I think. This guy has an immense amount of energy, a personal style, youth. To promote any brand effectively you’ve got to cut through and differentiate your message from the prevailing mood elsewhere. I didn’t foresee the worldwide superstardom that Trudeau would engender but there’s this sense that Canada is now this outpost of optimism. I think he’s doing a great job of promoting those things.
RB: I’d say a word of caution. You always have to spend that political capital at some point. You do have to actually govern. No one’s going to deny that it’s good that people are now looking to Canada for ideas, whether it be selling our refugee sponsorship programme to other nations or the way we’re managing the economy. But in government you have to make a lot of difficult decisions. And I think that this government is only now on the cusp of doing some of those things. It could be problematic to the image that’s been created so far. It’ll be interesting to see.
DR: Absolutely, there’s no question about that. And I say that as an interested observer; I don’t have anything to do with Trudeau any more.
RB: The one thing I would say is that people tell me, “Oh you must be so happy now, reporting on this government, it must be so much easier.”
DR: Because as prime minister Stephen Harper controlled his government’s message so firmly?
RB: Yes but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s certainly a different kind of communications management. Stephen Harper was famous for not taking many questions from the press. It was a deep, centralised message control. It might look different now, it may look more open and transparent, but that same message control still exists.
DR: So when you’ve interviewed the prime minister do you get a sense in him of a genuine openness, that you might be able to get something more from him than you might have from his predecessor?
RB: I’d say if he has a particular thought or message he wants to get across, he doesn’t tend to expand on it any more than he needs to. There are ways around that for a journalist but no, he’s not the longest talker on the planet.
DR: I think the best advertising is the truth well told. I ultimately believe that consumers and voters are smart and see through artifice. In one of the television ads we did with Trudeau, we had him walking up an escalator that was moving downwards. It was a good example of a visual metaphor. It was meant as a metaphor for the struggle of the middle class, stuck on a treadmill. Politicians rarely say yes to ads where they have to “act” but the way Trudeau delivered the message in that context, it worked so well.
RB: Did you ever worry that he was going to fall down the stairs?
DR: Yes, I was absolutely worried. I was the body double at the start of the shoot. I can say now it’s pretty difficult walking up a downward escalator for a long period of time. I mean unlike you, Rosemary, I’m a background guy, so nobody knows me. And that’s the way I like it.
RB: Well I don’t think there’s a general adoration of journalists in Canada. We’re one rung above politicians. But I’m not in this business to be loved. I love politics and the payoff is knowing that you’ve asked the things that needed to be asked. And hopefully got some of the answers too.
Barton is one of Canada’s most prominent political interviewers. As host of CBC’s daily Power and Politics, her heavyweight political guests have included prime minister Justin Trudeau and his predecessor Stephen Harper, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and US secretary of state John Kerry. Her disarming interview style is admired across the political spectrum.
Rosenberg is a partner and chief creative officer at Bensimon Byrne, Canada’s largest independent advertising agency. It is one of the only agencies to have bought itself back from a multinational, which it did in 2006. In 2015, Rosenberg oversaw the television campaign for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, which went on to win the election by a large margin.