The battle of the image men

John Hay August 6 1984

The battle of the image men

John Hay August 6 1984

The battle of the image men

John Hay


For two evenings last week the campaign for the Sept. 4 federal election became a kind of videogame—a competition among television images in which viewers were left to decide the winner. First on the French networks and the next night in English, the leaders of the three main parties contended for voters’ attention and affection as they tried to avoid the Big Mistake that every politician facing TV cameras dreads. New Democrat Ed Broadbent at least had the advantage of experience, after taking part in the most recent TV debate—held during the 1979 federal election campaign. But for Prime Minister John Turner and Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney the debates pitted two novices in a critical test of skill at the politics of image. Neither emerged as a clear-cut winner, but their efforts underscored the immense importance of image in a campaign that until then had lacked any dominant issues or theme. Declared political scientist Walter Soderlund of the University of Windsor, who studies the relationship between politics and the mass media: “You are looking at the ulti-

mate image election. If you wanted to pick the ultimate image candidates, they would be John Turner and Brian Mulroney.”

Even in the age of television, image is not always everything. Issues can still make a difference, as the Liberals showed in the 1980 campaign with their lethal assault on the Conservative energy policy that promised to raise the excise tax on gasoline by 18 cents a gallon. But with that kind of catchy issue so far missing from the current campaign, the images of the leaders’ personalities could well play a decisive role in the election. For that reason, the leaders spent hours preparing for the debates last week, and their parties will spend millions of dollars producing commercials and plotting “media events” in the coming weeks—mostly to promote the leaders themselves.

Jousts: All three parties claimed that their leader was the victor. But Maclean’s correspondents across the country found that Canadians, for the most part, thought the TV jousts inconclusive, although they tended to award Mulroney points for a slightly more polished performance than Turner. In an informal sampling of opinion three individ-

uals appeared to symbolize the public reaction. In Halifax, Walter Walkden, a ships’ chandler, watched the Englishlanguage debate at home with his wife and 13-year-old son. All three broke out laughing when Turner had to search for the last word—“leadership”—in his opening statement. When the debate was over, Walkden, who did not vote in the past two federal elections, said that he had decided to vote Conservative in September and he concluded that Turner in the debate had been “too defensive,” while Mulroney, on the whole, had performed well. In Montreal, Sylvain Charlebois, a 22-year-old who is undecided but leaned toward the Liberals, watched the French-language debate in a Montreal tavern and thought that Mulroney came across as “calm and smooth. I’d say Mulroney won by three points.” Jean Brosseau, a 23-year-old student who is also leaning toward the Liberals, thought that Turner lost: “His answers to the questions about patronage and the deficit were pretty weak.”

A much more pronounced—and often cruelly frank —consensus against Turner emerged among academics who specialize in media research and among the consultants who make a living

teaching people, mainly businessmen and politicians, how to behave on TV. In the view of consultant Patricia Adams of Toronto-based Tri-Com Communications, Turner was wise to insist on having the TV debate early in the campaign “because he will be a long time recovering from it.” Adams said that she found Turner’s style in the debate disturbingly defensive. “His tongue darting in and out made him look like an anteater at a picnic,” declared Adams. On the other hand, she contended that Mulroney had improved on his past media performances: “There was a ring of sincerity last night that I hadn’t seen before.” Thomas Reid, another media consultant, agreed that Turner’s facial mannerisms betrayed his nervousness. “I call him the face that launched a thousand tics,” said Reid.

Sympathy: Media consultant Agota Gabor of Toronto provided Maclean’s with thumbnail reviews in the form of memos to the leaders themselves. Of Turner she noted that “your body language, your gestures and your angry voice all came across as defensiveness.” To Mulroney: “You were perfect, perhaps too perfect. It was a remarkable performance, but one that made us wonder how much of all this is really you.” To Broadbent: “You were effective, sincere and believable. Your body language, your eye contact and your mannerisms left us to admire you.... How nice to see a not-perfect-looking candidate.” Derrick de Kerckhove, co-director of the McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto, added that Turner looked

“frightened,” but he suggested that that quality might even work to Turner’s benefit by attracting sympathy. De Kerckhove declared that Mulroney was the most controlled, but “of the three he appears the least trustworthy. Even the expression on his face makes him look like a small-town seducer.”

During the debate both Turner and

Mulroney attempted to mask or correct the “image defects” that have concerned their campaign advisers. When Turner was challenged by a journalist on the panel to forswear bottom-patting, he said that the gesture is evidence that he is not as stiff or as wooden as some people think. “I happen to be a warm, outgoing person,” he insisted. “People reach out to me; I reach out to them.” For his part, Mulroney, aware of public uncertainty about his competence, deliberately pitched his voice low and smiled less frequently than he does usually.

Brokers: The reasons why the difficult-to-define quality of image play such an important role in Canada’s political life is the subject of frequent studies. Absent Mandate, a recently published analysis of the past three federal elections, offers a persuasive set of answers. The authors—political scientists Jane Jenson and Jon Pommett of Ottawa’s Carleton University, Lawrence LeDuc of the University of Windsor and Harold Clarke of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg—base their theory on the argument that Canadian political parties act as interest brokers. According to the brokerage theory, Canada’s vast distances and regional, economic and social disparities result in the fact that parties are often least successful when they put forward genuine ideologies or detailed policies on major issues, because what appeals to one group of voters will just as likely repel another bloc. The authors contend that because of that the largest


Canadian political parties tend to stress short-term tinkering rather than longterm solutions to problems.

Because parties have few reliable bases of voter support, the authors say, they must remain ready to switch policies to attract new voter groups. The parties, says Absent Mandate, “organize around leaders rather than around political principles and ideologies and expect the party leader to work out the multitude of compromises required for such a party to enjoy electoral success.” Even the NDP, with its political platform rooted in the doctrines of democratic socialism, is increasingly following the same strategy, with campaign tours and advertising that focus on the party leader.

Decisive: Although party labels do still influence many voters, the leader’s image seems to matter most to those potential vote-switchers who carry no strong allegiance. Says political scientist Fred Fletcher of Toronto’s York University: “Image is important because the people who are most readily movable from one party to another tend to be image-oriented.” Those people take little interest in politics—but they can play a decisive role in elections.

The University of Windsor’s Soderlund, too, concluded after studying media coverage of the 1979 and 1980 elections that leadership image is the most important electoral factor. Says Soderlund of the current campaign: “Ideology has not been important. No particular issues have come to dominate. It is very difficult to distinguish between the PCs and the Liberals. Even the NDP is moving toward the middle of the road. Therefore, image—in the sense that a leader creates the impression that he can handle the situation—is more important than anything else.”

For the party leaders, their handlers and the voters, the central medium in the creation of a political image is television. Campaign strategists have learned how to manipulate television, staging events and planning the leader’s tour for the best impact on the night’s news programs. Said Peter Desbarats, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario: “The whole campaign is now presented for television, and it is largely artificial events made for television, which the TV journalist has no choice but to present—that’s all there is.”

Sophisticated market research has enabled the three major parties to learn fairly accurately how the public sees their leaders. The next step in the image campaigns is to find ways of exploiting each man’s good points while seeking to minimize the bad points—“perceived defects” in the image-makers’ jargon—

when they appear on TV news, in commercials and in televised events and the debates. The experts agree that two image characteristics in particular usually matter most to voters: competence and concern. York University’s Fletcher contended that Pierre Trudeau always scored high on competence and low on concern, while former Conservative leader Joe Clark “was the reverse; which tends to support the view that competence is more important than concern.” In the current campaign each of the party leaders arrived at the starting line

with his own advantages and drawbacks in the image race. Private Liberal polls show that Turner scores significantly better than Mulroney in at least three key areas that measure leadership ability: the handling of foreign affairs and the economy and in projecting a primeministerial image. But Liberal party sources say that the two men score about equally on the key measure of “likability”—and Turner staff mem-

bers have set out to warm up the public persona of a man who is seen by many Canadians to be somewhat aloof.

Bottoms: But as a way of demonstrating his congeniality and warmth, most Liberals agree that their leader’s fondness for patting women’s bottoms has proved to be far more trouble than it was worth. In the past two weeks Turner touched off controversy by playfully slapping Liberal party President Iona Campagnolo’s and Quebec vice-president Lise St. Martin-Tremblay’s bottoms. It was, said a Turner aide, an

“unnecessary problem that he’s brought on himself. [But] it sure has taken care of any notion that this guy is a Bay Street stuffed shirt.” Liberals across the country agreed. Said Dale Godsoe, president of the Halifax Liberal Association: “I don’t think it’s an issue. He [Turner] doesn’t mean it disrespectfully. The real issues are jobs and people, and he’s concerned about the economy.”

The aspects of Turner’s character

that the Liberals most want to emphasize are the qualities of credibility and decisiveness that they say he possesses. Those qualities help to give Turner an image of competence where, according to an organizer, he “has a significant advantage” over Mulroney. Party polls show that competence is one area in which the public distinguishes clearly between Turner and the Conservative leader. Liberal sources say that surveys indicate that Turner also scores well in terms of confidence. “He exudes a sense of being in charge and not being

afraid of the future,” said one Liberal organizer.

In contrast to Turner’s image of somewhat exaggerated self-control, Conservative strategists worry that Mulroney carries friendliness to a fault. A former aide to the Tory leader said that early in the campaign a loyal party member instructed him to “to tell Brian to quit being the life of the party and start being the Prime Minister of Canada.”

As a result, Mulroney has been urged by his advisers not to grin so much on TV and to cultivate a more measured and serious style of speaking. On the other hand, Tories claim that Mulroney scores higher than Turner as a sympathetic person who is concerned about people’s troubles. Their task in the campaign is to make him look more prime ministerial-competent enough to change the way the government manages the nation’s business.

Mulroney made one of his major campaign mistakes in July when he told

reporters in an unguarded moment that he had different positions for voters and party workers on the sensitive subject of patronage appointments. That became a crucial issue for Tory image-makers because it exposed a weakness in Mulroney’s sought-after image of competence and credibility. Mulroney decided to take up the patronage issue again last week and try to use it against Turner, to show that only the Tories can

change the Liberal way of governing. Still, some of his aides argued that he should drop the matter. “Otherwise,” said a strategist, “he is keeping alive an issue on which he has made a mistake.” Political scientist Jon Pammett of Carleton University contended that the patronage episode could prove damaging to Mulroney because the public already associates the Conservatives with mismanagement under former prime ministers Clark and John Diefenbaker.

Rivals: For his part, Broadbent went into the image contest with the head start because he is far better known to the public than his rivals. As leader of the New Democrats since 1975, Broadbent has generally enjoyed a sound reputation even among Canadians who do not vote NDP. Said Michael Morgan, whose Vancouver advertising agency is producing the NDP’S commercials: “People see Broadbent first and foremost as a very honest man, as a decent Canadian.” Broadbent’s name and face, according to Morgan, are widely recognized, and he scores well for integrity and compassion. Given that, the NDP campaign, pitched to the “ordinary people” Broadbent likes to refer to in speeches, will try to make two points: that Broadbent himself is a moderate, thoughtful, sensible man and that the party itself is a hospitable, even a cosy place for voters who have not supported the NDP in the past. Said Morgan: “Some people don’t know what the NDP is. We have to show it is a comfortable place to be.” The NDP campaign will remind voters what the party has done in the past to produce such programs as medicare and better pensions and set out new proposals for fair taxation and economic revival. And it will stress similarities between the Liberals and Conservatives. Said Gayle Cromwell, campaign co-ordinator for Nova Scotia: “What’s really helping is that the other two parties are so much alike. We really do look like an alternative.”

Although Campaign ’84 appeared in its early stages to be largely a battle of images, substantive issues could yet emerge to dominate and help decide the election outcome. But as Liberal party pollster Angus Reid noted last week, most political issues are “complex and difficult; it is rare that we have elections fought on an issue where you just take a stand.” More often—as seemed likely to happen in the current contest—each party’s campaign, for all of the position papers distributed and speeches made, adds up to little more than an implicit appeal to the electorate to trust in the competence of the party and its leader to solve the country’s problems after the election has been won.

With Gillian MacKay and correspondents' reports.

Gillian MacKay