Selling a PM: The marketing of Justin Trudeau

The Prime Minister’s team pushes reams of official portraiture over social media, from mob scenes to intimate moments. What, exactly, are they selling us?

Prime Minister Trudeau meets students with the Forum For Young Canadians in Ottawa. March 23, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Prime Minister Trudeau meets students with the Forum For Young Canadians in Ottawa. March 23, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

When marketers are sorting out how to position a consumer product so you’ll want to buy it, one of the first questions they consider is whether they’re dealing with a dominant brand or a challenger. A dominant brand is the undisputed giant in a category, to the point that it almost occupies the generic role in the consumer’s mind: Coke, Kleenex, McDonald’s.

A challenger brand, by contrast, seeks to turn its underdog status into a virtue, promising to offer something different than its competitors—think of ING Direct setting itself apart from the big banks with a quirky, minimalist approach and lower fees. A challenger brand aims its punches upward. It tells you that you have a choice beyond the status quo, insisting that if you give it a chance, better is possible.

Sound familiar?

At parades, pancake breakfasts and events featuring large numbers of people in costume, most politicians end up looking like the vice-principal bopping his head to the music at the school dance. There’s usually a self-consciously “casual” suit jacket, awkward smiles and earnest handshakes. That is not the prime ministerial mode Justin Trudeau has chosen. At Toronto’s Pride parade in early July, he showed up in an untucked pink button-down shirt that was soaked in water-gun spray by the end of the route. He danced. He sang along to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. He plowed his way down the barricades offering high-fives and open-mouth grins. The crowd lining the parade route loved it, and so did an international audience that passed around photos fuelling yet another “meanwhile in Canada” meme depicting the Great White North as a mascot of friendly, progressive cool in a world turned ugly.

MORE: We asked experts to dissect iconic photos of Justin Trudeau

Branding a politician like Trudeau is not so different, really, from pitching a new car or facial moisturizer. You think about which category your product belongs to, who it’s aimed at and what makes it different and better than the competition. And it’s a lot smarter to build your brand on something authentic rather than faking it, because people can smell that a mile away. If you focus on the best of what’s really there, you can turn your product (or politician) loose in the world to be itself.

Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada rode to victory last fall playing the classic challenger role. Every political campaign markets its candidate, but Trudeau’s team has done it better than most, catching an upwind of public sentiment that was a perfect fit for their pitch, playing to their strengths and maximizing their electoral marketplace gifts.

Central to the Trudeau branding project are the photographs shot by his personal photographer, Adam Scotti. They’re broadcast to Trudeau’s 578,000 Instagram and 1.9 million Twitter followers, and to the smaller audience of 6,400 followers of Scotti’s personal Instagram feed. When he was still a student at McGill University, Scotti started photographing Trudeau during the 2011 election campaign; he was hired full-time in 2014, and has had unfettered access to the Prime Minister ever since. “I’m privy to a lot more of his time in his life than others are, but I wouldn’t say that he is any different in front of me than he is in front of other cameras,” he told the Huffington Post last year. “It’s just the access.” Like his boss, Scotti is retracing paternal footsteps—his father, Bill McCarthy, was Brian Mulroney’s photographer while he was prime minister.

Personal photographers have long been a part of political life and image-building. Jean-Marc Carisse, who photographed three different Liberal prime ministers, shot Jean Chrétien playfully vaulting a fence following a private stroll with Bill Clinton at a G8 summit. John F. Kennedy’s photographer, Jacques Lowe, freeze-framed the president crouching to get a kiss from his young daughter, Caroline, and learning of the assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba with a phone to his ear and a palm to his grimacing face. Pete Souza captured President Barack Obama and the first lady forehead-to-forehead on a freight elevator—with aides nearby averting their eyes—on the night of his inauguration, and stooping to let a five-year-old black child pat his hair in the Oval Office because the child wanted to know, “Is my hair like yours?” Their subjects are some of the most-recorded people on the planet, but photographers like Scotti get access no one else does and a mandate to display the private—though no less carefully considered—sides of their powerful bosses.

Now, we have reached a uniquely content-hungry age, where an image trumps a thousand words, and everything we know is constructed as a story. People can see the bedsheet patterns of unreachable celebrities or the clutter on a millionaire athlete’s kitchen counter; we have come to expect a glimpse behind the scenes of every polished facade. Trudeau and his team are simultaneously giving the public what they want and leveraging that appetite to build his brand. “Increasingly, part of this is demanded by the electorate, celebrity culture and the—well, probably false—sense of intimacy we get with interacting on social media or looking at photos of his life,” says Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. That makes these images more powerful than ever, and more worth passing under a magnifying glass. Maclean’s combed through Scotti’s photos in order to unpack the identity Trudeau’s team has built for the Prime Minister, how they convey that to the public and how successful they’ve been in that marketing project.

By virtue of the access his photographer gets, these images of Trudeau have an inescapable inner-circle quality; it’s like looking at familiar characters on a TV set, but shot from the opposite side of the cameras, looking out at the audience. In academic terms, this behind-the-scenes quality is known as the “authenticity paradox”—the very images that announce themselves as candid and free-wheeling rarely are just that. In the photos released by the Prime Minister’s Office, patterns and themes emerge that capture different aspects of Trudeau’s public identity. There are crowds that surge toward him like waves on a beach, babies and children—his own and other people’s, with whom he looks equally at ease—snazzy socks, bro-ing around with Barack Obama and Prince Harry, arrestingly intimate physical or eye contact with his wife, his colleagues and strangers alike, and dramatically lit solitary working moments that feel like peeking through a keyhole. The effect is youthful, energetic and emotive, but not weightless—there is real work being done here, the photos suggest, but everyone is having fun, too.

The whole visual package is like a catalogue advertising the approach on which this government sold itself: inclusive, accessible, operating with a sort of institutional friendliness. “They were coming up against a government that was 10 years old, had run its course and had adopted this behaviour of being very dour and very serious and very kind of closed,” says Andrew MacDougall, former director of communications for Stephen Harper. “And they kind of thought, well here’s our guy who people like anyway. Let’s let him be him, and be open, likeable and energetic—all these things that played up to who he is and his strengths, and not some kind of version of what they want him to be.”

Playing to strengths is basic political­­—and marketing—smarts, but some are easier to advertise than others. Harper is as introverted as Trudeau is extroverted, MacDougall says, and he most enjoyed the quiet, invisible parts of the job: the economy, security, international summit negotiations. Important issues, to be sure, but you try making an exciting photo of it. Just as it’s tough to imagine the ad that showed Harper at his desk late at night working for Trudeau because it’s not his natural mode, the images in which Trudeau shines would have been awkward torment for his predecessor. The current Prime Minister’s obvious enjoyment of people and crowds of any size makes marketing and political experts swoon: those assets are a gold mine. And there’s a naturally emotive and performative quality to Trudeau that amplifies everything he does; Scotti’s camera loves him. “It happens to get the kind of easy calories in political communication—hug the panda bear, do that kind of stuff. That stuff sticks, it plays to his brand and who he is,” MacDougall says. “Anytime you get the politician doing something he likes in front of a crowd that likes him for it, that’s kind of the holy grail.”

But to get to this point, Trudeau and his team pulled off a bit of a backflip. Long before the campaign got going last summer, he was the target of criticism and attack ads that positioned him as a flimsy dilettante, often in overtly emasculating terms: sparkly visual effects, sniping about his hair, a spotlight on anything that smacked of a self-promoting show pony. The safest and most obvious defensive imagery for his campaign to adopt would have been to stuff him into charcoal suits and park him behind campaign lecterns to emphasize his seriousness, says Goodyear-Grant. Instead, he was rarely seen in a jacket or properly knotted tie, and he spent much of his time frolicking outdoors and balancing babies like live magic tricks. “He didn’t change course in terms of the way he was presenting himself politically; in fact he doubled down on it,” she says. “The difference is it ceased being a liability once he could demonstrate—and he did demonstrate, over and over again—that he had the political weight behind it.”

But in spite of how skilfully his team has built his message, Trudeau still sometimes inspires narrow-eyed suspicion about the staginess of certain moments. After he helped welcome Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in December, Philippe Garneau, president of GWP Brand Engineering, saw in his social media feeds the same criticism of the feel-good photos and footage that everyone else did: why did he have to plant himself at centre stage? To Garneau as an ad guy, that is absurd. “Are you joking?” he says. “Look at the guy. Look at what he made a promise to do. This is such a human story, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.” You can recognize an extremely flattering photo op and also believe in the underlying cause and enjoy being part of a feel-good moment as a human being, he says. “Look, we photograph our food, then we eat it; one is for show and the other is because I was hungry,” says Garneau. “You’re allowed to have both.” (His brother, Marc, is Trudeau’s minister of transport. Philippe was not a Trudeau fan when his brother competed with him for the Liberal leadership in 2013, but he freely admits to being won over since.)

What Trudeau and his team have understood all along—better than most—is that modern marketing is about storytelling. “The brain is not a fact-finding organ,” Garneau says. “It’s first and foremost [about] emotions.” One of the images that sticks with him is last Halloween. Trudeau had been elected, but not yet sworn in as Prime Minister, and he and his family went trick-or-treating—with Trudeau dressed as Han Solo and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau as Princess Leia—trailed by Scotti and news photographers. The gambolling young family looked like an editorial spread from a high-end parenting magazine. But to Garneau, it read as a guy who was legitimately geeked out about a new Star Wars movie, and revelling in the joy that is Halloween when you have small children.

None of which is to say that Trudeau and his team are not very aware of and savvy about the images they create. In his book Brand Command, about Canadian political communication, Alex Marland, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University, quotes an exchange captured on camera between Trudeau and his communications director, Kate Purchase, on the day Trudeau and new cabinet are to be sworn in. He tells Purchase they are “tricking” the assembled media with positioning at Rideau Hall: “Getting off the bus is such an ugly shot that we’re making sure they get the walk over from 24 [Sussex Drive].” For their part, the Prime Minister’s Office says the branding isn’t the point, but the means to an end to make their leadership case to voters. “The Prime Minister and his cabinet have committed to bringing openness, transparency, and accountability to government,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement. “We have also made it a priority to communicate regularly with the press and to engage with Canadians.”

The photos-within-photos they put out—Scotti shoots the Prime Minister squeezing in next to people who take selfies with him—are tidy visual encapsulations of the more accessible democracy the Trudeau government promised, Marland says: it shows a leader who is literally close to and connected to voters, rather than gated off. He detects Trudeau plunging into crowds for selfies less often now than he did during the campaign, possibly due to security concerns. But the selfie photos pack an interesting double-punch, Marland says, because you end up with the typical polished photo put out by the PMO, and also the amateur photo someone takes on their phone, tags and shares. “In my opinion there is absolutely no question that they’re using social media in ways it has not been used,” he says.

There is also the accidental genius of good timing. Silhouetted by a certain orange glow emanating from the south, the boxing, panda-cuddling Canadian Prime Minister who zips jackets around Syrian refugees and marches exuberantly in the Pride parade looks even more appealing. That’s given an international signal boost to the photos that come out of Trudeau’s office: the Internet turns them into memes and passes them around, amused by the stark juxtaposition of what looks like a living, breathing nice-Canadian stereotype against the acid vitriol of Donald Trump. “Canada is getting noticed again—not for anything it’s doing, really, but for who’s at the top. That’s never happened since Trudeau Sr. maybe,” says MacDougall. “People are interested: ‘Who is this young guy from Canada?’ And Canadians like that—we’re suckers for that kind of stuff.”

In academic terms, the coziness built by these efforts is called parasocial interaction—it’s the one-sided attachment people develop for media figures, and the reason why, when we meet a celebrity, we feel like we already know them. The big problem with this in a political context is the bread-and-circuses effect, where citizens get distracted by a personality they like and stop paying attention to issues and policies. But Marland and Goodyear-Grant both point out, with resigned ruefulness, that reams of research in their shared discipline suggests very few people think about those things anyway. Citizens generally form broad impressions of their political leaders, decide whether they like and trust them, and then leave them to handle the details if they do. “Most people are just not paying attention to this stuff. They just don’t care,” Marland says. “So it gives them probably a sense of pride that their Prime Minister seems to be well respected on the international stage.”

The honeymoon for Trudeau and his government has now been rolling for eight months and counting. The Canadian economy is relatively healthy and there’s a certain sunniness to the national mood, helped along by the tone reset of a new government. But eventually, you have to go home and sort out who does the dishes and takes out the garbage. “You can’t be all things to all people, and as you start either avoiding making decisions, or if you make decisions and upset people, then you’re developing a shape,” says Marland. “When you don’t have a shape, it’s very easy for people to project things onto you. It definitely changes the longer you’re in office. It’s inevitable.” When tougher days arrive, it will be unwise for Trudeau’s team to carry on with the shiny images, because they risk looking oblivious to people’s worries and frustrations. And the sheer novelty factor of a young, photogenic, seemingly game-for-anything Prime Minister will also fade with time. “The media eventually is like, ‘How many more photographs can I see of Trudeau doing a one-armed push-up? I’ve seen it, so it’s not news anymore,’ ” says Marland “It creates a degree of cynicism, so it becomes harder for them to do it.”

Perhaps in one of their dude-plomacy hangouts, Obama has told Trudeau how tough it can be to continue to embody an uplifting message when you’re the incumbent and people start inquiring about that hope and change they were promised. “The minute he stops questioning and accepts the status quo and the way it’s always been done, then it puts a lie to, ‘Because it’s 2015,’ ” says Garneau. “For him, the greatest fear would be for them to say, ‘He’s just another politician.’ ”

Garneau thinks about another quintessential challenger brand when he considers the way Trudeau has been marketed. In Apple’s early days advertising the iPod, one ubiquitous campaign featured dancing, joyous people silhouetted on brightly coloured backgrounds. The device represented an enormous leap in technology, and yet the ads said nothing about its features or even what it did—they simply sold you the feeling you would get from buying in. With all those smiling, crowd-rousing, playful images, Trudeau himself has been an iPod launch, Garneau believes—and most people are still enjoying grooving along to the music.

Picking apart iconic Trudeau photos

Maclean’s asked four experts—most of them specialists in imagery, rather than politics—to take a closer look at some key photos released by the Trudeau camp and tell us what they see in them. Learn more about them, and find the photos below.

  • ANGUS TUCKER, executive creative director of John St., a Toronto-based advertising agency with clients including Heinz, President’s Choice and Wiser’s whisky
  • LESLIE J. UREÑA, assistant curator of photographs for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, which is home to an extensive collection of presidential portraits
  • JANICE MCLAREN, head of education at the Photographers’ Gallery, which was the first gallery in the world devoted solely to photography when it was established in London in 1971
  • ALEX MARLAND, a professor in the department of political science at Memorial University and author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control


Selling a PM: The marketing of Justin Trudeau

  1. Justin is a global elitist. Unfortunately, while media outlets across the nation attempt contact for commentary on said issue, he’s busy delivering the Shahada at one of our many Megamosques…..Shirtless, of course…..How’s that for “marketing”?!

    • The MSM predicted with grevious predjudice that he was a lightweight… ready to fall on his face. The elitists suggested “if he showed up to the debate with his pants on, it would be considered a victory” Sorry Mr Sour Grapes it was global audience that made him a star.

      • Well, Trudeau is indeed something of a lightweight. However, he knows how to connect with people, and he’s smart enough to put competent people in place in key positions. So perhaps that’s all that’s needed to be successful.

        In this respect, the American equivalent of Trudeau was Ronald Reagan. Nobody ever accused Reagan of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. However, Reagan, who was known as “The Great Communicator”, was able to connect with people, and was smart enough to surround himself with people smarter than himself.

        It’s possibly not a coincidence that Reagan was an actor before becoming a politician, and Trudeau taught drama (among other things) before he went into politics.

        • “smart enough to put competent people in key positions”. You’re kidding right? He selected his cabinet by going 1 boy, 1 girl, 1 boy, 1 girl. The person that he put in charge of electoral reform, a key issue for sure, is a first time MP who was about to move back to her native Afghanistan before the liberals offered her the nomination. She thinks that twitter should help to guide public policy. The Minister of Immigration doesn’t really ever seem to know what is going on and the minister of carbon tax gets fooled by every troll that suggest an idea to her about how to fight climate change.

          • I don’t agree with a gender quota either. However, IMO it hasn’t caused damage in most key positions.

            Having said that, I can’t argue about the criticism for putting Maryam Monsef in charge of electoral reform. When it was announced that she was heading it up I couldn’t understand what the reasoning was, except maybe to have someone expendable to throw under the bus if the initiative went south. And since then, her performance has been lacklustre at best.

  2. However none of this worked for Ignatieff, Dion or even Harp…. who was trailed by his own personal make-up artist and hair stylist

    • In three years when Trudeau is sent packing, will you say that it didn’t work for him either?

      • Trudeau will be around for at least two terms…..probably a couple more

        Cons, meanwhile, are still saying the very things that got them tossed.

        • Trudeau will be gone in 2020 and the Liberals will be obliterated. The economy is in the tank and the housing bubble will likely burst by then. While that’s certainly not all of Trudeau’s fault, the brunt of the blame will be laid upon him. What won Trudeau the election was the following:

          1) Canadians were tired of Harper. Trudeau won’t have this to work with at the next election, and while I have no doubt he will continue to blame him for everything, it won’t resonate with the voters.
          2) Leading up to the election, the bar was set so low for Trudeau, that he surpassed voter’s expectations just by showing up with his pants on. Again, that won’t work as Canadian’s expectations will be higher. Look, the man is dumb. You know it, I know it, the entire world knows it. It is an established fact.
          3) Legalizing pot. No question this inspired many younger voters, but he no longer has a gimmick to legalize, so this is a dead end.

          • Hey we were jobbed… According to polls Rona Ambrose ( 15% said she is the preferred leader of Canada ) there would be a brothel and pot store on every corner…. where’s mine?

          • Trudeau performed well in the debates (and arguable won most of them) against so-called very intelligent adversaries…I think that proves your “established fact” incorrect. Also, it is obvious he cares about the country and Canadians and it was obvious Harper didn’t….except of course for the rich who he did look after with boutique tax credits and HST reduction. I believe most Canadians also believe that. The economy is in a tank because 1. Harper went “all in” on oil and that obviously failed. 2. Harper didn’t invest in R&D, trades training, intellectual pursuits…again “all in” on digging stuff out of the ground. 3. The world economy is weak . We are reaping everything that Harper did and didn’t do. Canada should be kicking the whole worlds butt with our extensive natural resources (more than any other country on the planet save Russia), a hard working educated workforce, small population etc. Trudeau and his team cannot turn the ship around in 9 months but give them a couple of years.

          • Like I’ve said before….. unless Justin does something like accidentally blowing up NB….he’s in for a long time

            Canadians are liberals…..sorry.

            And Cons just look stupid saying things like it’s a ‘fact’ that Justin is ‘dumb’

            He has 2 degrees and is well traveled…..a man for the times.

          • Tom, oil makes up 3% of Canada’s GDP, so Harper most certainly did not go “all in” with oil. The fact that you believe this while also believing that Trudeau won the debates is quite telling. You are ignorant and fell for his baseless rhetoric.

            I am a small c conservative, so that’s my bias stated. Having said that, I thought that Trudeau’s performance during the debates was rather poor. First, he was rude and constantly shouted over his opponents. Yelling repeatedly “that’s not true Mr. Harper” does not constitute debate. However, we can argue that that was more about decorum than anything else. Where Trudeau really fell on his face for me was his argument that Harper hurt the economy with his deficits. An analysis of this points out that it was Trudeau’s party that threatened to topple the Conservative government unless they rewrote the budget to include massive stimulus spending, so Trudeau doesn’t get to walk away from the deficits unscathed. Furthermore, Trudeau would then go on to explain that his idea to “jump start” the economy would be to incur… more deficits? The man is effectively saying that when Harper does something, it is bad, but when he does it, it is good, and you think he won the debates?

            Like I said, you are ignorant and bought into the rhetoric hook, line, and sinker, but if you live in a world were facts actually exist, Trudeau was a preening ass during the debates, spouting off inconsistent nonsense.

          • it’s pretty clear that dolts like Tom Rudd havent’ a clue about economics, finance, or frankly….much of anything; if he truly believes the crap he just wrote.

            he’s one of those folks, who if he were an American….would be a Bernie fan. He believes whatever he’s told…..because having to think for himself is just as bad as having to work for a living.

  3. the article notes:
    “What Trudeau and his team have understood all along—better than most—is that modern marketing is about storytelling”

    yeah….sort of like the marketing of Big Macs or thalidomide.

    They are made to sound good….but in the end, if you get too much of it there are consequences. marketing is about lying to the people you want to win over.

    You just saw what 11 months of a Trudeau Government can bring…….wait til you see what three more years will feel like; especially when he starts jacking up taxes and fees to pay for the promises he’s had to make to steal NDP voters.

    Oh well…won’t really affect me much in any event.

  4. “Let them eat selfies.” only works if the economic policies work. And Trudeau’s economic policies are leading Canada over the cliff into the abyss.

    Trudeau’s plan is $1 trillion dollars of deficits for you and me to get him selected Secretary General of the UN in eight years…and yeah… the national debt is likely to triple in his eight years as PM.

    The parasites have moved on from Queen’s Park to Parliament Hill.

    Canada’s rivers are going to run red on Liberal red ink.

  5. The PM and his local MP is huge disappointment to Senior Citizens.
    He lied to the “would be voters” who expected increased CPP and better treatment than PM Harper gave
    us. Everybody else comes first. We are not even on the map.

    • Trudeau is a show off. Plain and simple

  6. Trudeau is a brain dead a#shat. He will be lost when uncle Barrack is gone and he has to deal with Putin on his own. Hahahaha, can’t wait for that.

  7. the most self centred idiot in Canada. his bum kissers help but so do big media. like this lengthy crap piece.
    it is not selling a PM , it is selling an ego maniac.

    • that’s pretty much it. He’s using the office for his own self indulgence and narcissism. I didn’t think that we could have a worse PM than PET, but this idiot definitely leads the pack when it comes to being a bad PM.

  8. They should get a few farmers on their marketing team, they’re good at spreading manure.

  9. Justin Trudeau is a bumbling idiot, selfies and photo-ops do not equate to managing the country, and he has done a very poor job of things so far. What is sad is that the next generation will have to pay for Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s mismanagement.

    • As much as Trudeau is an idiot….and I agree that he is when compared to other PM’s we’ve had like Chretien or Harper……. A lot of Canadians voted for him.

      I think he’ll be a disaster as PM, but at the same time he is the PM of the country, and I would actually hope he exceeds my expectations and one day realizes that being the leader of the country is not just about self-aggrandizement. His decisions, and his party’s policies will affect a lot of Canadians. Let’s just hope he keeps the damage to a minimum. In about 10 to 15 years, the earth will start to get decidedly cooler due to the lack of solar activity. Maybe by then, when the earth is getting cooler……the future PM will decide that the carbon tax and all this “green policy” bullshit will be eliminated and they’ll admit it was just a blatant cash grab.

  10. LOL Sure are a lot of sour grapes on here!

    I guess your campaign about his hair backfired.

    • Some people actually care about this country.

      • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. …Samuel Johnson

  11. …and the hilarious part of it all us Trudeau’s grovelling, starry-eyed groupies who screamed their fool heads off that Harper was vain with his pics and videos lap this up and squeal and gush with glee like 16 year olds over One Direction.

      • How did we get from flirting to fascism to this cartoon character of a PM and what comes next?

  12. There’s an unnerving “reality TV” aspect to all the coverage the Trudeau receives.

    Sometimes it feels like watching a television program with an actor playing a Prime Minister.

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