Leaders need to sell themselves - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

25 June 2012

As November approaches, the US presidential candidates are going full throttle on the campaign trail. The next few months mean ordinary life is on hold as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney zip around the country, trying to build allegiance to the cause. But, a tick on a ballot is not the only thing they’re hungry for. Crossing the finish line in the first place takes an enormous about of money.

Campaigns aren’t just about manifestos. They’re also about merchandise.

Obama’s more than $60m (€47.8m) piggy bank is largely thanks to $40,000 (€32,000)-a-plate fundraising dinners. But you can buy a piece of Obama merchandise for as little as $1.50 (€1.19). Where Romney’s selection only gets as experimental as a splash of pink on a Romney “R” baby’s onesies – Obama’s 288 item array of clothing, cups, cat collars and other kitsch souvenirs seems nearly endless. “Barack’s Best Friend” dog leash? It’s yours for $15 (€12). Or, splash out on a Grace Tsao-Wu and Laura Kofoid designed leather purse for $85 (€67). It’s a strategy that’s even made the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Of course, not a single piece of schwag reads “I’m a Democrat” – it’s about personality; the party has not a drop of standalone brand power when it comes to selling the president.

Head north to my homeland of Canada, however, and you’ll see that we approach our political leaders in a very different way. Despite efforts by our Prime Minister Stephen Harper to rename the Government of Canada the Harper Government, it’s not really about him. And, could you imagine kicking back with your Molson in a Harper can holder or getting ready for a night out with some Harper nail polish?

Canada is not an absolute stranger to leaders with allure – the notorious womaniser Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, was our best example. But, we’re in the midst of a bit of a dry spell.

Yes, prime ministers in Canada aren’t directly elected like presidents in the US. And subjecting politicians to the entire hullabaloo that comes with being a celebrity does seem to, at times, detract from the important issues. But there are advantages to having someone with a bit of charisma running the country.

Even Obama, who’s styled himself as a leader of the zeitgeist, hasn’t been able to turn around his country’s steadily declining voter turnout. Nor has Harper captured the hearts of Canadians enough to actually get them to leave the sofa for the ballot box.

It’s all about the intangibles – that bit of je ne sais quoi beyond mere policy-making ability. After all, there’s more to running a country than parliamentary speeches and ribbon-cutting. A nation’s leader is its foremost a brand ambassador, and deals are still sometimes made over dinner. Sadly, nobody wants Harper at their table.


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