Making "Pictures in Our Heads": Government Advertising in Canada

By Jonathan W. Rose | Go to book overview

Introduction

In a March 1984 American primary debate between rival Democratic candidates Senator Gary Hart and vice president Walter Mondale, the vice president looked at Hart and said, “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’” This was not only an earthy, populist retort to ensure a sound bite on the evening news, it symbolized how advertising increasingly was becoming the mode of political discourse and how political discourse was being relegated to the “grammar of advertising.” Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” phrase quickly stood for the apparent vacuity of Gary Hart’s campaign and may have helped Mondale win the presidential nomination. At that time the phrase was the slogan of Wendy’s fast food restaurants, and thus firmly embedded in the public consciousness. By bringing it into political discourse, Mondale was indirectly speaking about one conception of politics: There is no difference between selling public policies and selling hamburgers. In the early 1970s left nationalists in Canada wore a button that wryly said “Nixon drinks Canada Dry.” In these two examples, the line between politics and popular culture becomes blurred.

In the 1995 Quebec Referendum, the Oui side relied on the revival of 1960s fashion that was regaining popularity by using such powerful signs as a daffodil, peace sign, and daisy as integral components of its advertising strategy. These powerful icons of the 1960s were used to sell the merits of the sovereignty position, though their relationship to the break-up of Canada was not clear. The Oui side metaphorically was saying that choosing to embrace sovereignty was like choosing fashion. Politics—especially the emotionally laden politics of nationalism—seems to be more about wielding prominent symbols in popular culture than it does about choosing substantive policy alternatives.

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