Middle-brow

From the Canadian Press assessment of Patrick Muttart’s departure.

Muttart also overhauled the party’s election ads. He pushed for extremely bland ads of Harper being asked questions by a fictional TV newscaster.

“The ads were artfully middle-brow,” Flanagan wrote in his book, Harper’s Team.

“Although many observers said they were hokey, they were well-conceived for the job they had to do — to communicate the essence of our policy to middle-aged or older, family-oriented, middle-income people without high levels of formal education.”




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Middle-brow

  1. The trouble with stereotyping and pigeon-holing is that once people figure out what you are doing, they soon realize what you consider them to be.

    Puffins may be cute, but well fed pigeons can quickly impose a lasting impression on even the most statuesque of people.

    • All political ads for all parties are crafted with a particular audience in mind. It has been this way since the dawn of advertising. I don’t see anything wrong with crafting an ad that communicates to “middle-aged or older, family-oriented, middle-income people without high levels of formal education.”

      • Citizenship isn’t the same thing as shopping.

        • Citizenship isn’t the same thing as shopping.

          It is, if you live in a democracy.

          Seriously, if you’re maintaining that it’s somehow it’s indecent to pitch political parties through the same medium (and method) used to pitch toothpaste, then you are trying to breathe new life into a philosophical argument that died sometime in the early 1950′s.

          • then you are trying to breathe new life into a philosophical argument that died sometime in the early 1950’s.

            No it didn’t. The critique against marketing that uses psychological manipulation to prey on people’s desires and appeal to people’s narcissism has been unceasing and has been advanced even more vocally in the last while. It’s indecent (although mostly innocuous) enough to sell toothpaste that way, but it’s downright depraved to present political choices in that fashion.

            The medium isn’t the issue here; that’s why I didn’t mention it.

          • =psychological manipulation to prey on people’s desires

            Isn’t that the very definition of advertising? The art of persuasion? You seem to be implying that the innocuous advertising strategy described in the article (using the same techniques employed by all political parties) is somehow akin to a CIA Black Ops psychological warfare tactic with science-ficton-y subliminal messaging (i.e. the “depraved” scenario).

          • you sure can buy citizenship in Canada or the States if you have enough money – it used to be 500k for entry into the States a few years back.

          • Isn’t that the very definition of advertising? The art of persuasion?

            There’s a difference between manipulation and persuasion.

            You seem to be implying that the innocuous advertising strategy described in the article (using the same techniques employed by all political parties) is somehow akin to a CIA Black Ops psychological warfare tactic with science-ficton-y subliminal messaging (i.e. the “depraved” scenario).

            Huh?

            *wanders off*

      • No, in isolation, it seems pretty innocuous.

        It’s when your whole election strategy and policies (ie targeted tax breaks etc.) are, essentially, a product of polling, and an effort to simply buy one’s votes to get re-elected, you run the risk of being perceived as being insincere and manipulative.

        I’m sure it goes on all the time. The way these Conservative strategists (former or current) openly brag about their “brilliance” seems self serving and rather short sighted and will likely lead to a negative response.

        Maybe not. But my message is targeted at a different demographic…

  2. I’m not such a snob as to think middle-brow is insulting, but artful?

    Please.

    • I think Flanagan liked the colours.

  3. Problem is, aren’t middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income, middle-brow people generally middle-of-the-road? Thus a tough sell for the fairly hardcore Harper, however many sweater vests he wears at once.

    • Next time they’ll have him sitting in an Elks hall in uniform a beer in one hand and a game of unfinished dominoes on the table. Oh and he’ll run down a mugger on the way out.

      • LOL. I’ll be holding you responsible for that idea when it comes out in six months, kc.

      • What, Tim Horton’s wasn’t artfully middle-brow enough?

  4. The fewer political hacks like Muttart (and for that matter, Flanagan) the better, given that their sole purpose seems to be to lower the level of our political discourse in Canada. … Good riddance.

    Like David Frum and his early departure from the sinking Republican ship (before the American economy imploded, while Iraq and Afghanistan continued to fester and before the GOP got their asses handed to them in the ’08 election), it makes one think of a certain metaphor involving rats…

  5. “The fewer political hacks like Muttart (and for that matter, Flanagan) the better, given that their sole purpose seems to be to lower the level of our political discourse in Canada. … Good riddance.

    Like David Frum and his early departure from the sinking Republican ship (before the American economy imploded, while Iraq and Afghanistan continued to fester and before the GOP got their asses handed to them in the ‘08 election), it makes one think of a certain metaphor involving rats…”

    Okay, first-off, Frum left the website in early 2002 – before the GOP reamed the Dems in midterm elections (one of the few cases of midterm gains for the presidential party) and won the 2004 presidential election. So if we are to extend your rather dubious metaphor, Harper’s got 4 good years, and maybe 2 bad ones yet to go.

    Secondly, I really wonder what your notion of a political hack is. Tom Flanagan is a professor (I guess he is a bit more of a public intellectual, but he has a decent cite count) and hasn’t worked with Harper since 2006. Most of his articles on Harper have served more to undermine Harper by laying bare his plans (eg. the “destroy the Liberals” bit).

    But what really bugs me is the notion that a high level of discourse is a bad thing (I suspect your real beef is that you think Conservatives are wrong, and therefore lowering the discourse by opening their mouths). I would counter that, in fact, democracy requires a LOW level of discourse. The higher the level of discourse, the more people are disenfranchised from a debate they cannot understand. This is particularly problematic where the costs of learning about politics differ from person to person. For instance, as a political science grad student, following the news is relatively relevant to me, and my training helps me analyze it concisely.

    Moreover, a low level of discourse isn’t really problematic. Those with more political knowledge can read between the lines ad figure out what is going on. Now, obviously you think you are very smart, or you wouldn’t be lamenting the fact that politicians only speak to proles. Yet I suspect there would be a way to raise the level of dialogue in a way that would exclude you. “Why not just talk about the issues” – well sure, why not talk about inside baseball in the Canadian Wheat Board? Why don’t our leaders discuss the merits of the Greenspan hypothesis, and its implications for derivatives trading, given an independent central bank? The thing is that political discourse doesn’t just come from politicians. It happens in the media, in academia – most people discuss the issues that matter most about them (I know people who couldn’t name the Prime Minister, but had good knowledge of say the stem cell research issue). Political marketing doesn’t need to engage in high-level debate because that already happens. Political marketing makes the most sense if it targets those that already shut out of that debate. Will people develop some wrong impressions? Maybe. But people also have interest groups to mobilize them, and generally, deep knowledge of the issues that touch them most directly. Indeed, that is precisely why Muttart’s microtargeting approach worked. The basic idea of liberal democracy is that individuals are best suited to make decisions on their own behalf – there are no illegitimate reasons for voting for a given party.

    • HtoH,

      You are a student of political science, so obviously you believe there is some science in this “profession”. I believ it’s more art.

      I think the jury is out on how effective Muttart was, following the approach you appear to embrace. There’s a fair bit of myth making going on here, whether deliberate or unwittingly.

      Muttart arrives as a political strategist from a different route than you are taking – a background in marketing, enhanced by a keen personal interest in PolySci, from what I gather from the linked article. And it shows.

      He apparently spent a fair bit of energy “rebranding” the Conservative Party – to great acclaim by some pundits. But, how effective has he really been in the long term?

      I seem to recall the “public intellectual”, while candidly reviewing the circumstances that lead to the coalition crisis and proroguing of government, admitted it was a major mistake of Harper’s undertaking, to add in at the last minute the effort to kill off the $1.95 public subsidy. He suggested that there needed to be someone strategically close to Harper that had to catch these things and counsel Harper against doing them – implying that he would have caught it had he still been there, but also pointing the finger at someone else for failing to do so. I now read that target to have been Muttart.

      Also, applying basic marketing principles, you can either position yourself as a niche player (think of Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo) or you can go for market share (Pantene ProV). The trouble arises when you attempt to reposition the same product from niche player to sales leader. Confusion results, and the brand you worked so hard to establish, with a loyal customer base, can be damaged irreparably.

      So, how has Muttart’s branding efforts for the Conservative Party worked out recently? I don’t need to elaborate further on this point. Andrew Coyne’s latest columns/blogs adequately cover the issue. His The end of Canadian conservatism makes a cogent argument.

      So, Muttart: Brilliant political strategist, or failed marketing hack? The jury is out (amongst this niche at least)

      • Politics + maketing = disfunctional, pandering, lowest commen denominator poll driven system. Thanks Muttart for helping things along.

    • When you reduce political discourse and government to a marketing exercise – as the Harper regime seems to see it; whether it be micro or macro targeting – I think they have amply demonstrated that the lowest common denominator campaign approach will always produce a result that smacks of the bland leading the bland. Or worse.

      Also, one would suspect there are truth in advertising laws that would prohibit the portrayal of an extremist like Harper as a moderate?

      When the guiding principle behind a political strategy is spewing bullshit in the attempt to attract more cows it’s small wonder a majority of Canadians keep looking around in an attempt to locate the abattoir that logically follows.

      • I think you’re quite right. The thing about advertising is, the days of the consumer being a passive sponge of ad “messages” are gone. People are way more “sophisticated,” i.e. cynical: they notice when they’re being spoon-fed now. Whence the new, knowing ad style that tries to get the viewer to cooperate in the game of ads. Compared to, say, an Adidas ad, those Tory ads were extremely lame and end up making Canadians cynical without exploiting their cynicism. Time to get a new Machiavelli.

        • People are more aware that’s for sure. I wonder if the cons strategy backfires as much as it succeeds in their chosen demographic, and maybe even here? When yr adds are so hokey that folks are laughing at you then what have you gained? The worse aspect of this stategy apart from its cynical contempt for the electorate, is that once again it seeks to divide us when any fool can see we need our collective strengths, now more than ever.

      • When you reduce political discourse and government to a marketing exercise …

        There’s a whole generation of people like Hosertohoosier who see absolutely no distinctions among the the variety of roles people take on when they participate in a society; student, parent, worker, shopper, citizen…they’re all reduced to behaving as consumers and in that way, applying market ideology to analyse their behaviour and to devise strategies appropriate to the market to persuade/seduce//manipulate them makes sense. And when you challenge it, all you ever get is a restatement of the assumptions of how consumers behave and how treating them like consumers is not only reasonable, but inevitable.

        It’s obvious this is failing…not only for the market but for participatory democracy. For all the gush and self-congratulatory exuberance about the Conservative public relations campaigns, they only managed to appeal to 22% of the eligible electorate in the last election.

        • It’s all marketing and it’s all advertising. We can dress it up as “Rhetoric” or something finer, but it all about persuasion. The only question is whether it works or not. I have no idea how this can be “depraved”;when you say that toothpaste advertising can be “indecent”, this is indicative of a general feeling that people can be readily persuaded to act against their interests by manipulative politicians.

          Well, boo-hoo. People make bad decisions for all kinds of reasons, sometimes because they are gullible and easily led. Time they smartened up and thought for themselves.

          • There are valuable distinctions to be made among the concepts of persuasion, seduction and manipulation. The first two I find ethically defensible, but the last I do not.

            I was being hyperbolic about the indecency of toothpaste advertising. I mostly think it’s dumb to suggest products, especially personal care and household items can lead to the marvellous experiences you see depicted in advertising….gleaming healthy smiles (which only come with proper dental hygiene and regular visits to the dentist) and people dancing across their kitchen floors with their Swiffers etc. But that the market economy and I have no problem with that. I just object to it being applied to human activities that are fundamentally different than consumption.

            I also object to the sheer amount of education, talent and resources wasted on this, but that’s another topic.

            Time they smartened up and thought for themselves.

            That’s not really saying much.

    • Are you saying that lying to people makes them smarter?

  6. The Conservatives consider these “middle brow”? Just how many voting Canadians didn’t make it to high school? I would not call that the middle.

    Can anyone imagine Conservative “low brow”? I guess that would be sticking to one syllable words, primarily grunts and groans.

  7. “Also, applying basic marketing principles, you can either position yourself as a niche player (think of Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo) or you can go for market share (Pantene ProV). The trouble arises when you attempt to reposition the same product from niche player to sales leader. Confusion results, and the brand you worked so hard to establish, with a loyal customer base, can be damaged irreparably.”

    I think politics is an art, but I think it can be studied systematically. That usually means, however, that you aren’t explaining individual events, but rather broad trends. I think you have a good sense of the tradeoff (I like the shampoo analogy), but it is worth looking at Canadian politics – does the political environment favour one strategy or the other? In a 5-party first-past-the-post system you only need a coalition of about 40% of the population to win a majority government. Anything above that gives you a supermajority – which has no real advantage. Indeed, supermajorities can be problematic because one has to appease so many camps (look at how Dief stumbled, or how the Mulroney coalition fell apart).

    Secondly, Canada is not a very homogenous country. There is a French-English divide, a large immigrant population, and regionalism (these factors help explain why we have a 5-party system as well). As a result Canada is easy to divide up, and hard to talk to with some sort of grand idea.

    Thirdly, the basic logic of collective action (drawing from Mancur Olson’s classic formulation) is such that it is easier to mobilize small groups than it is large groups. The environment is a good example of this – compare the success at dealing with localized environmental problems (eg. dirty water) with that of dealing with global ones (eg. climate change). While climate change is by far the worse problem, it affects everybody in every country, so each has a strong incentive to pass the buck. By contrast, dirty water is localized, so you can get public support for action (hence you can actually swim at Toronto’s beaches now). Microtargeting treats the world as a series of small groups, and offers them a large benefit, rather than a diffuse national one, and uses the logic of collective action in its favour.

    Finally, I think an unexplored facet of why Conservatives prefer microtargeting has to do with conservatism itself. Conservatives prefer (ceteris paribus) less government spending. However, as politicians, they are primarily driven to seek reelection. In order to win reelection, they need a majority coalition of 40% of the populace. Microtargeting is the least expensive way to reach that 40% – even if the money that is spent is essentially pork. The 2008 election is a good example of that – the Tories offered very little in new spending (a diesel cut was the main thing), yet made considerable inroads in the North and among New Canadians. Microtargeting may not hold the same appeal to parties on the left, who have less of an antipathy towards government spending.

    “Also, one would suspect there are truth in advertising laws that would prohibit the portrayal of an extremist like Harper as a moderate? ”

    You are insane. Harper is absolutely a moderate. His only major tax cuts (ie. the ones the Liberals would not have implemented in power) were cuts to consumption taxes which, incidentally, are the most regressive taxes (the Liberals would have cut progressive income taxes). He has increased spending as fast as Martin, and shown little hesitation in launching the country back to deficit when faced with a recession (a position he took almost as soon as the election was past). He has barely mentioned gay marriage, and saw to it that the issue was put to rest ASAP by voting on it early, at a point where he knew he would lose the vote (at any rate he was the most pro-gay rights Reform MP, and often criticized the party’s emphasis on social issues). His environmental policy is the same essential policy of Chretien and Martin (all talk, no action).

    Incidentally, people like you are an example of why micro-targeting is necessary. There are no circumstances under which you could objectively review the evidence (and why should you). It makes no sense to offer broad appeals to the populace, when the populace includes many people like you. I should note – I don’t blame you and I am not attacking you for being partisan. A lot of things have amplified Canadians partisanship – for instance, blogs and news aggregators filter the news that we read every day; news coverage is increasingly geared towards horse-race coverage (an implicit nod to the fact that we assume our horse is the one we want) and so on. Why make broad appeals to the public when most of them will never vote for you anyway?

    • Interesting reply/analysis. I don’t have much to add from what I’ve earlier written in general terms, only to point out that there are two ways to reach the 40% threshold – increase your piece of the pie, or shrink everyone else’s.

      The declining voter turnouts and increasing apathy/disillusionment suggest to me that the “success” of the Conservative strategy over the past few years is more a result of the latter. And I think this Muttart marketing approach has contributed greatly to it. Hopefully, I will be proven wrong with a changing of the guard.

      • There is another way to deal with the pie : Read Sun Tzu = before eating your piece of the pie with the others discretely (one at a time confidentially) suggest to two of them that their piece seems smaller than usual and their neighbours piece seem bigger : then while they engage in conflict make a deal with another party that in the future if their share is smaller you will give them some. The sit back ,relax, roll a big fat one break out the bong and invite everyone to a pie party.

    • You are insane. Harper is absolutely a moderate.

      Well, that’s only if you don’t remember what positions Harper has supported in the last 20 years.

      Anyway, all of what you wrote sounds reasonable enough, but it just doesn’t address the sheer quantity of disinformation and outright dishonesty that’s integral to political public relations campaigns, which have reach alarming levels with the Conservatives.

    • Which Harper is a moderate? The one that thinks climate change is a hoax or the one that thinks it is important and needs to be dealt with? The one who said Alberta should build a firewall and those in the east are losers or the one who says he supports a united Canada? The one that said he would never run a deficit or the one that will get us $100B or more in the hole?

      Or do you think all the Harpers are moderate?

      • You forgot the Harper that argued in support of the illegal/immoral invasion. A high point in Harper’s moderation, to be sure.

        • The issue is whether Harper has governed moderately.

          • By Harper governing moderately, do you mean Harper coming up with the financial update or Harper coming up with the budget? Harper having one of his MPs put forward a fetus rights bill or Harper killing the bill as he prepares for another election? Harper implementing a fixed election date law or Harper walking to (whoops, I mean arriving in a long motorcade at) the GGs to ask for an election?

            Or, as MYL suggests, do you just take the average of Harper’s governing style?

          • Or, as MYL suggests, do you just take the average of Harper’s governing style?

            Well, first you have to assign values to those different events and then you come up with a index of Harper moderation. That’s just science!

            I’m sure some political scientist will be along with that soon. Until then, we’ll have know way of knowing.

      • In fairness, catherine, the examples you cite tell us that Harper averages out to being moderate.

        ;)

        • I don’t know about moderate; maybe pragmatic is a more accurate term. Or maybe self-absorbed and power-hungry.

          All I know about Harper now is that he wants to be Prime Minister. He appears to have no other views of significance. Even Chretien seems like an ideologue by comparison!

    • You say:

      “Also, one would suspect there are truth in advertising laws that would prohibit the portrayal of an extremist like Harper as a moderate? ”

      You are insane.
      ———————-

      As a self-admitted “political science grad student” perhaps I could direct you to investigate the difference between “insanity” and “heresy?”

      Surely you have read your Hobbes?

      “They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that dislike it, heresy; and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion”

    • Hosertohoosier, excellent analysis!

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