The problem with political advertising – from television commercials to micro-targeted get-out-the-vote efforts – is that, when properly applied, it works. As Toronto Star senior political writer Susan Delacourt’s new book makes clear, the success of marketing innovations in Canadian political campaigns ensures that such tactics will be even more prevalent in the future, especially as a smaller percentage of the public pays attention to traditional forms of news.
Much like Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, the engaging Shopping for Votes provides a compendium of the latest vote-courting techniques used by political operatives from all parties, but especially the federal Conservatives and New Democrats. Delacourt’s findings will not come as a massive surprise, but her vision is different from the one espoused by political pundits. Delacourt shows readers that the process of getting people to commit to one party or another is complex, and election coverage often lacks the sophistication of the campaigns being covered.
The strongest section, which draws on Delacourt’s talents as a reporter, focuses on recent efforts by the Conservatives and NDP to target voters interested in their policies. The early chapters, by contrast, provide useful historical context for the role of advertising in politics, revisiting trailblazers like Dalton Camp, Keith Davey, and Martin Goldfarb. This history comes at the expense of a greater exploration of why voters and politicians have come to see their relationship as so transactional. Delacourt shies away from confronting this topic.
At one point, she writes, “It’s probably not an accident that marketing-style politics were pioneered by market-friendly politicians.…” Of course it isn’t an accident. It may be the most important development in politics in this country in the last 40 years, and it should have played a greater role in this otherwise admirable book. – Dan Rowe, a professor of journalism in Toronto.