Martyn Brown: Branding Premier Pixie Dust
Skill testing question: what is British Columbia Premier Christy Clark best known for?
Just posing that question conjures her image, which offers its own answer: her smile.
Like Madonna, Adele, Rihanna, Britney, Pink, Gaga, or Miley—sadly, she is a rock star in her own right, whose celebrity shines on a first-name basis.
To most British Columbians, she is just “Christy”—always beaming from ear to ear – wearing a hardhat and coveralls that reinforce her brand as B.C.’s blue-collar champion for jobs and working families.
Premier Photo Op.
That’s the Christy we all know and love—or not.
The one rarely seen without a shovel in her hand, a happy child at her feet, a nodding group at her table, or an adoring flock beside her at the podium.
Premier Smiles and Chuckles. That’s Christy.
A.k.a. the Jobs Premier, as she would have you think of her—the irrepressible optimist whose enthusiasm, energy, and star power could really make the Site C dam project redundant, if she could only find a way to harness her irresistable megawatt smile to power B.C.
People love a person with presence. And like her or not, she’s got plenty of it.
It’s called “branding”, folks. And in these Trumpian times in which we live, it is more important than ever in winning elections.
Donald Trump may be the looniest and scariest dude on the planet, but he knows a thing or two about branding. Half of his empire is just his last name. The other half hangs in the balance of his alter ego, known simply as The Donald.
He’s Jekyll and Hyde packaged in a singular brand that somehow convinced nearly 63 million Americans to “let’s do that!”
As we all know, Trump trashed his competition by branding them with monikers that stuck, so much so that even most Canadians knew them by rote. “Little Marco”, “Low energy Bush”, “Lyin’ Ted”, and of course, “Crooked Hillary”.
One by one, they all fell, as they were eternally defined, by the smallest, most dishonest, and most dangerously bent demagogue of them all: the one whom his victims refused to similarly brand until it was way too late.
They all tried to place nice at first and failed miserably. They were all scared of calling out The Donald by counterbranding him with the same relentless, repetitive, consistent, and devastatingly visual vitriol that he employed to send them packing.
They were all afraid of provoking his wrath and landing the first blow—as if that wouldn’t come anyway—or of coming across as petty, mean, or puerile. The only thing that touched him was Rubio’s brilliant retort about Trump’s small hands. No one will ever look at him the same, he of the tiny hands, which put the bully in his impotent place, like a bad Congressional vote on the plan to repeal Obamacare.
Volumes have been written on this subject. It’s not brain surgery. But it is all about brain training, through wordplay that hits a nerve because it touches upon aspects of troubling human character that seem “truthy” enough to ring authentic with target voters.
Certainly the B.C. Liberals get that. They have been more than willing to take a page out of Trump’s winning playbook to brand and define NDP leader John Horgan.
Time is running out on the NDP
Clark only needs to win about 800,000 votes for the NDP to once again steal defeat from the jaws of victory. So far, she is miles ahead of him in the branding race that should be his for the taking.
Of course, she has been happy to let her corporate minions do the heavy lifting. Millions have been spent on the Horgan-hit jobs by CC4BC and on the ubiquitous "Say Anything John" attack-ad campaign.
You think Trump is audacious? Using that charge to brand Horgan takes the cake. Especially coming from Clark’s apologists.
Her government has made an artform of saying and spending anything it takes to buy votes. And equally, of lying about almost everything: climate action, pipelines, LNG, housing, child protection, campaign finance, health services, education, public safety, the NDP—you name it.
Then again, there is one thing that Premier Taradiddle almost never says. “Sorry” seems to be her hardest word. It should be etched on her government’s tombstone.
Trouble is, time is running out on the NDP to put its stamp on Clark. Branding takes repetition and there is now less than two weeks until the writ is dropped and only four more after that until May 9th voting day.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why John Horgan and the NDP seemingly haven’t already grasped this and run with it for all their worth. Particularly after they saw how Adrian Dix was negatively branded.
They have mostly sat on their hands and watched as history has repeated itself. Big mistake, despite Horgan’s assurances that once the bell sounds, his gloves will come off.
The New Democrats have either refused or failed to consistently brand Clark and her party with memorable monikers, humorous hooks, cutting criticisms, and clearly pointed themes that are driven home at each opportunity that presents itself.
The NDP used to be really good at this stuff. Which makes what has happened all the more remarkable to behold, after 16 years in the wilderness. Maybe the party has just forgotten how to do it, I don’t know. But it’s not all a matter of money.
Horgan’s "Forget Everything" response to the budget was pretty tame and missed the chance to brand Clark with a handle that might stick.
Looking back on the Hansard debates, it is tough to find a single label or many consistent themes that are being religiously and relentlessly reiterated, to rebrand her in the NDP’s preferred image.
Ditto for Horgan’s excruciatingly short and tepid speech at his party’s recent “last supper”. That most-watched fundraiser could have provided him an important opportunity to frame Clark in a provocative way, in front of some of her own supporters. It would have generated lots of media attention, I can tell you that.
Former premier received devastating moniker
Surely the New Democrats well remember how Mike Harcourt was fatally branded, barely a year into his ill-fated term in government. It was the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer who so cruelly and cuttingly forever crowned him as "Premier Bonehead", for his willingness to sacrifice B.C.’s future parliamentary strength of numbers, in the Charlottetown Accord negotiations.
It hurt Harcourt badly. Why? Because it was visually suggestive of the balding, lunking premier who was increasingly attacked by some of his own cabinet ministers for being too slow to make decisions, too keen on consensus, and too prone to making bad decisions. In short, it had a kernel of truth beyond Harcourt’s bungling on Charlottetown.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the world of Harcourt, for all that he has done for Vancouver and for British Columbia over his storied career in public and community service. But he sure learned the power of branding the hard way.
Arguably, his biggest boneheaded move was to appoint a forensic auditor to look into the Bingogate scandal of which he had no part, but for which he took the ultimate rap, by being forced into resigning. Which just showed, a prescient and deadly nickname can really hit home if its skillfully plied over time, as it was in Harcourt’s case.
The point is, the NDP has to get on with branding Clark with at least the same skill as the unions showed in branding “Campbell’s cuts”. It painted him as a cruel and heartless corporate toady.
Didn’t work in the end, in part because the NDP never found quite the right moniker to personally brand Gordon Campbell as a caricature worthy of ridicule. But that was eons before the dawn of social media as it exists today.
To win, it helps to flip your opponents’ strengths on their head.
Christy’s biggest strength is, without a doubt, her killer smile and her comfortable, charismatic, and “say-everything-like-you-mean-it” telegenic appeal.
Contrary to what the NDP might want voters to believe, her biggest weakness is not that she is seen as being long at the tooth, particularly arrogant, or even out of touch in the sense that matters to casual political observers.
It is fine to remind voters of the B.C. Liberals’ 16 years in office, which is central to the NDP’s argument for change. But trying to label Clark as being tired, out of ideas, or the poster child for her party’s arrogance of power won’t, I predict, quite cut it.
Nickname would amplify Clark's phony claims
The B.C. Liberals were successful in branding the 1990s as the NDP’s Dark Decade. Horgan might brand the last 16 years as the Liberals' Long Acid Reign.
If I were him, I would try to link Clark more closely to Campbell, starting with her 16-year war on teachers, which she launched as Campbell’s education minister and deputy premier.
Sixteen years of picking fights with unions, seniors, and those too vulnerable to fight back. Sixteen years of acrimonious relationships and caustic development that has only benefited the rich and powerful, et cetera.
More importantly, Horgan needs to personally rebrand Clark. But quick.
To do that, he needs to go after her visual claim to authenticity, by branding her as a phony.
He needs to make voters feel like they would be stupid to fall once again for her duplicitous smile, in all it represents.
Fool me once, shame on her. Fool me twice, well, shame on me. Can’t say we weren’t told.
She lied to us with stars in her eyes, looking right into every camera in 2013.
At every turn, she promised things she knew she couldn’t deliver, and charmed too many of us into forgetting her government’s failures and transgressions.
Call her Premier Pixie Dust. A caricature for the ages and for the cartoonists to repeatedly depict for our amusement.
Indeed, the NDP should hire its own cartoonists to do just that. Each day in the campaign, the latest image of Premier Pixie Dust, waving her wand, dazzling us with her smile, and vowing to set things right that she made wrong or worse in the first place.
It was an idea I almost employed on Carole James in the 2009 campaign, but we couldn’t quite pull it off by the time I thought to do it, in corunning the B.C. Liberals’ central campaign.
Premier Pixie Dust. She leered through her pearly white teeth and promised sweet make-belief nothings.
On the LNG pipedream, vowing to create $1 trillion in economic activity and a B.C. Prosperity Fund with $100 billion over 30 years.
On eliminating the debt that’s now doubled. On providing affordable housing. On cutting taxes that have instead risen on the hidden taxes paid through MSP, ICBC, and B.C. Hydro.
On cutting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment. On creating umpteen new mines that never materialized.
All pixie dust.
Just like her commitments to protect children at risk, seniors in care, and those coping with mental illnesses, drug addictions, or the shattering problems of poverty and homelessness.
Just a suggestion, John Horgan.
It’s only one of many creative monikers that might cut to the quick and ultimately give new meaning to that famous Phyllis Diller line, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”
I invite you all to share your own suggestions on social media for effectively branding both Clark and her party. You probably have all sorts of monikers to add to the ones I’ve offered in this piece.
With a proper commitment to that enterprise, 2016 need not be a rerun of 2013.
Like Dr. Seuss suggested, “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.”