Ottawa View: Selling the dream: the Quebec election

This column, serving as Strategy's window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.Business with government during the summer is, at the best of times, slow.This year, it's motionless. Librarians would love it here.The lethargy can...

This column, serving as Strategy’s window on Ottawa, looks at emerging issues, practices and trends in federal government communications.

Business with government during the summer is, at the best of times, slow.

This year, it’s motionless. Librarians would love it here.

The lethargy can be attributed in part to a government-wide program review, cost-cutting exercises, the ad agency selection process and the Quebec election.

We’ll return to reviews and agencies at a later date. This week, it’s la belle province.

Reason vs. emotion

Quebec’s forthcoming election pits the Apollonian against the Dionysiac; reason against emotion; informative advertising against brand advertising; Liberals against Pequistes.

Let’s start with the Greek reference.

On the face of it, Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson’s Liberals are selling rational thought, structure and the individuality of man. If they had a favorite art form, it would be sculpture.

Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, is pushing a world of enthusiasm and ecstasy, where man gives up individuality and submerges himself in a greater whole.

Art form of choice

Music, because it appeals to the instinctive, the chaotic, the emotional and not the reasoned, is the art form of choice.

Johnson is playing Apollo, the sun god who represents light, clarity and form, to Parizeau’s Dionysus, the wine god of drunkenness and ecstasy.

And yet, paradoxically, because they know who they are – they know their strengths – these ‘gods’ are working furiously to balance the equation; to round out their personalities: make them more palatable.

In one of the Liberal ads (campaigns were launched Aug. 15), Johnson, while flagging the costs of sovereignty, pleads that ‘I am not a machine’ (shades of The Elephant Man?) I’m not a sculpture. ‘Just because I’m elected doesn’t mean I don’t have children, a family.’

Sense of stability

Parizeau, by dint of his perceived autocratic, unapproachable style alone, conveys a sense of stability and authority.

It’s interesting to see that his handlers, sensitive to this less than popular image, are trying to soften it, despite the fact that it may well be serving a useful purpose cooling down the party’s euphoric message.

In a similar, more intentional way, the pq slogan, ‘A New Way of Governing,’ capitalizes on the standard desire for change, while emphasizing that good, rational government will always be a priority.

The Quebec case is interesting because it brings into sharp contrast elements (emotion/ image versus reason/cost) that most frequently encourage buying decisions.

It also begs the ancient question: in order to be effective, should advertising push image at the expense of information?

Given the advent of television, and an increase in competition for attention, one might argue that it must.

In fact, since the turn of the century, ads have generally become less informative, more dramatic, and, of necessity, more intrusive.

One assumes this approach has been taken because it has proved most successful.

And, yet, there is a trend (alarming to the American Association of Ad Agencies) in the u.s. toward ‘demarketing’ products, in which entire campaigns are focussing on price alone, with no reference to quality.

What we have in Quebec is an electorate that is full of contradictions: impulsive, apathetic, patriotic, pragmatic, fearful, confident.

During the election, each party has tackled these conflicting sentiments by augmenting their existing strengths with both informative and emotional advertising.

While the desire for change may well be the most important factor in the race, the lesson for marketers appears to be that the strategic use of both kinds of advertising is key.

Won’t be discarded

Pierre Trudeau once wrote, ‘Nationalism is too cheap and too powerful a tool to be soon discarded by politicians.’

Emotions and feelings about identity will always blow reason (of which federalism is a product) off the map. As a result, the pq has an enormous, unbeatable advantage in the election.

Because advertising doesn’t create new emotions, it caters to those which exist, and, because (if we agree with Michael Shudson in Advertising, the Uneasy Pesuasion) advertising is most successful when the consumer’s information environment is most impoverished, the pq, with patriotism, and uncertain future, and the desire for change on its side, should win this contest easily.

As for Ottawa, several things are certain: new agencies will be selected, new programs will eventually be announced and promoted, bread and water will cease to be the main staple of many Ottawa communicators, and Quebec will continue to dominate the agenda.

Nigel Beale is president of Nigel Beale and Associates, a communications firm, and operates the Ottawa offices of News Canada, a news distribution service. Reader feedback is encouraged and Beale can be contacted at (613) 563-3300 (phone); (613) 563-2245 (fax.)