Forget the Steak, Focus on the Sizzle
Anyone out there pondering a career in the exciting world of political communications should first answer the following question which is scientifically designed to test a person’s aptitude for the job.
Which of the following two actions would be more likely to improve a political candidate’s image: A) authoring a 500 page study examining public infrastructure funding or B) posing in a photo op with a pair of adorable panda bears?
If you answered “B”, the panda photo op, congratulations you clearly understand the basic principle of political communication, which is that when it comes to persuasion, people are typically influenced not by intellectual appeals but by simplistic visual imagery.
Simply put, as a species we’re wired to assume that if something glitters, then it’s probably gold.
Certainly this is something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his communications team understands extremely well.
In fact, you can break down Trudeau’s image-building communication strategy into a simple three point formula:
1. Send Trudeau to a visually interesting location, i.e. a gymnasium, a physics lab, the White House, etc.
2. Have Trudeau inundate journalists with a slew of captivating photo ops, e.g. Trudeau sparring in a boxing match, Trudeau peering into a microscope, Trudeau hugging pandas, or Trudeau posing with Hollywood celebrities.
3. Bask in the glow of resulting positive media coverage.
Using this formula the Liberals have managed to craft Trudeau’s image so that he comes across as a leader who’s dripping with coolness and awesomeness and oodles of sensitivity.
One day he looks like a sexy pugilist, the next day like a physics genius, the next, like a movie star.
It’s no wonder GQ magazine recently named Trudeau, “the most stylish politician alive.”
Of course, in reality all this imagery stuff is nonsensical.
I mean, just because Trudeau is cleverly marketed as stylish and hip and dreamy, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s also a good leader, right?
But as a rule, citizens are willing to suspend reality and accept public relations-induced illusions about their leaders
After all, it gives us a sense of pride and maybe even a feeling of security to think the people leading our country are brilliant or strong or somehow blessed by the gods.
Indeed, it’s for the sake of image that throughout history monarchs have always surrounded themselves with pomp and circumstance.
As George Bernard Shaw once put it, “Kings are not born, but made by universal hallucination.”
At any rate, this is the emotional need which Trudeau and his team are tapping into.
Mind you, such a communications strategy also contains risks.
It’s possible, for instance, the Liberal image-making machine could over flood the media market with Trudeau photo ops and hence reach an “imagery saturation point”.
“Ho hum, another picture of the prime minister in the newspaper striking a yoga pose. Boy, that’s getting old.”
This is why, to keep things fresh, the Liberals may eventually have to get more creative with their photo ops, i.e. Trudeau might have to box a panda bear, in a physics lab, using a yoga-style fighting technique.
But even then, Canadians might start to wonder, “Hey I see so many pictures of Trudeau acting like a hip celebrity maybe it means he doesn’t care about regular slobs like me.”
To offset such a backlash the Liberals may have to tone down the glitz and focus on getting Trudeau endorsed by Fields and Streams magazine instead of GQ.
Imagery campaigns for politicians must always be carefully monitored and calibrated.
And that’s a good lesson for would-be communicators.
The political images themselves might be simple, but the strategy behind them can be tricky.
(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)