Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Marland, Alex. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Marland, Alex. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control

Article excerpt

Marland, Alex. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2016. $ 39.95 CAN, hardcover (9780774832038).

Stephen Harper's government was known above all for one thing--message control. Brand Command, written by Memorial University political communications expert, Alex Marland, helps make sense of this message control and explores the implications of such control for democracy in Canada. It is a well-researched and well-written book, but it is not a comforting read.

Marland takes a provocative and highly relevant position visa-vis Canadian politics, power, and communications--i.e., that as interactive, web2.0 media expand democracy itself shrinks. Indeed the dominant metaphor for the Canadian political scene is that of a communications war. Marland argues that while rhetoric and image manipulation are as old as politics itself, there is something new under the political sun-branding.

Brand Commandos thesis is that centralization of power in the hands of the political elites has to be understood in the context of communication practices and technologies. With what is called the "permanent campaign", governing parties integrate governing with promotion of the image (brand) of the party leader and the larger party. The autonomy of parliamentarians, the media, and civil servants (who serve the people) is compromised as branding erodes essential barriers between partisanship and governance. Moreover, Marland argues that Westminster systems like Canada's--with their tendency toward party unity and centralization of power--are more prone to political branding than presidential systems.

The branding of commodities begins in the mid-eighteenth century when consumer goods with little discernible difference (coffee, tea, cocoa, soup) were packaged and marketed around a brand name. Later, advances in consumer research allowed consumer desires and longings to be fed back into and stimulate the overdetermined brand. Marland does not suggest that Harper's Conservatives invented political marketing and branding, but they developed it to an extreme. The key to branding is the integration of all aspects of one's product --control, repetition, and "outward-facing symmetry" (49) of image and messages. Hence, for example, the Government of Canada website's appearance, and government signage and logos, changed from traditional red to Tory blue as state, government, and party blurred into one brand.

Secrecy and discipline are also essential to political branding. As branding strategy develops within political parties the capacity for journalists and academics to gain insider information declines, and pressure on party members toward the party line as "brand ambassadors" increases (regardless of personal conscience and the obligations to local riding constituents on the part of parliamentarians). Marland's research is impressive on this count. He attained access to top Conservative strategist, Tom Flanagan, and thousands of pages of internal party files and documents, as well as other unnamed informants. Access to information applications were used to attain insider communication (even though the PMO is immune from such applications).

Marland argues that legitimate policy formation and branding are antithetical. The former is messy and complex, while the latter is pleasing, emotional, and seemingly easy. As communication technologies develop toward more democratic participation (two-way, immediate communication) the more the electorate demand transparency and the more political elites seek to control communications (while appearing open and transparent). Public monies are fed into the continuous campaign by way of policy--e.g. in 2014 Health Canada spent $7 million on anti-marijuana advertising (but failed to gain expert support because of the appearance of partisanship and the requirement of signing a confidentiality agreement) as Justin Trudeau began to promote the legalization of marijuana. …

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