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Selling a PM: The marketing of Justin Trudeau

The Prime Minister’s team pushes reams of official portraiture over social media, from mob scenes to intimate moments. What, exactly, are they selling us?
The Prime Minister designate Justin Trudeau meets with people at the Papineau Metro station. 20 octobre 2015. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
Prime Minister Trudeau meets students with the Forum For Young Canadians in Ottawa. March 23, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
Prime Minister Trudeau meets students with the Forum For Young Canadians in Ottawa. March 23, 2016. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

When marketers are sorting out how to position a consumer product so you’ll want to buy it, one of the first questions they consider is whether they’re dealing with a dominant brand or a challenger. A dominant brand is the undisputed giant in a category, to the point that it almost occupies the generic role in the consumer’s mind: Coke, Kleenex, McDonald’s.

A challenger brand, by contrast, seeks to turn its underdog status into a virtue, promising to offer something different than its competitors—think of ING Direct setting itself apart from the big banks with a quirky, minimalist approach and lower fees. A challenger brand aims its punches upward. It tells you that you have a choice beyond the status quo, insisting that if you give it a chance, better is possible.

Sound familiar?

At parades, pancake breakfasts and events featuring large numbers of people in costume, most politicians end up looking like the vice-principal bopping his head to the music at the school dance. There’s usually a self-consciously “casual” suit jacket, awkward smiles and earnest handshakes. That is not the prime ministerial mode Justin Trudeau has chosen. At Toronto’s Pride parade in early July, he showed up in an untucked pink button-down shirt that was soaked in water-gun spray by the end of the route. He danced. He sang along to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. He plowed his way down the barricades offering high-fives and open-mouth grins. The crowd lining the parade route loved it, and so did an international audience that passed around photos fuelling yet another “meanwhile in Canada” meme depicting the Great White North as a mascot of friendly, progressive cool in a world turned ugly.

MORE: We asked experts to dissect iconic photos of Justin Trudeau

Branding a politician like Trudeau is not so different, really, from pitching a new car or facial moisturizer. You think about which category your product belongs to, who it’s aimed at and what makes it different and better than the competition. And it’s a lot smarter to build your brand on something authentic rather than faking it, because people can smell that a mile away. If you focus on the best of what’s really there, you can turn your product (or politician) loose in the world to be itself.

Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada rode to victory last fall playing the classic challenger role. Every political campaign markets its candidate, but Trudeau’s team has done it better than most, catching an upwind of public sentiment that was a perfect fit for their pitch, playing to their strengths and maximizing their electoral marketplace gifts.

Central to the Trudeau branding project are the photographs shot by his personal photographer, Adam Scotti. They’re broadcast to Trudeau’s 578,000 Instagram and 1.9 million Twitter followers, and to the smaller audience of 6,400 followers of Scotti’s personal Instagram feed. When he was still a student at McGill University, Scotti started photographing Trudeau during the 2011 election campaign; he was hired full-time in 2014, and has had unfettered access to the Prime Minister ever since. “I’m privy to a lot more of his time in his life than others are, but I wouldn’t say that he is any different in front of me than he is in front of other cameras,” he told the Huffington Post last year. “It’s just the access.” Like his boss, Scotti is retracing paternal footsteps—his father, Bill McCarthy, was Brian Mulroney’s photographer while he was prime minister.

Personal photographers have long been a part of political life and image-building. Jean-Marc Carisse, who photographed three different Liberal prime ministers, shot Jean Chrétien playfully vaulting a fence following a private stroll with Bill Clinton at a G8 summit. John F. Kennedy’s photographer, Jacques Lowe, freeze-framed the president crouching to get a kiss from his young daughter, Caroline, and learning of the assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba with a phone to his ear and a palm to his grimacing face. Pete Souza captured President Barack Obama and the first lady forehead-to-forehead on a freight elevator—with aides nearby averting their eyes—on the night of his inauguration, and stooping to let a five-year-old black child pat his hair in the Oval Office because the child wanted to know, “Is my hair like yours?” Their subjects are some of the most-recorded people on the planet, but photographers like Scotti get access no one else does and a mandate to display the private—though no less carefully considered—sides of their powerful bosses.

Now, we have reached a uniquely content-hungry age, where an image trumps a thousand words, and everything we know is constructed as a story. People can see the bedsheet patterns of unreachable celebrities or the clutter on a millionaire athlete’s kitchen counter; we have come to expect a glimpse behind the scenes of every polished facade. Trudeau and his team are simultaneously giving the public what they want and leveraging that appetite to build his brand. “Increasingly, part of this is demanded by the electorate, celebrity culture and the—well, probably false—sense of intimacy we get with interacting on social media or looking at photos of his life,” says Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. That makes these images more powerful than ever, and more worth passing under a magnifying glass. Maclean’s combed through Scotti’s photos in order to unpack the identity Trudeau’s team has built for the Prime Minister, how they convey that to the public and how successful they’ve been in that marketing project.

By virtue of the access his photographer gets, these images of Trudeau have an inescapable inner-circle quality; it’s like looking at familiar characters on a TV set, but shot from the opposite side of the cameras, looking out at the audience. In academic terms, this behind-the-scenes quality is known as the “authenticity paradox”—the very images that announce themselves as candid and free-wheeling rarely are just that. In the photos released by the Prime Minister’s Office, patterns and themes emerge that capture different aspects of Trudeau’s public identity. There are crowds that surge toward him like waves on a beach, babies and children—his own and other people’s, with whom he looks equally at ease—snazzy socks, bro-ing around with Barack Obama and Prince Harry, arrestingly intimate physical or eye contact with his wife, his colleagues and strangers alike, and dramatically lit solitary working moments that feel like peeking through a keyhole. The effect is youthful, energetic and emotive, but not weightless—there is real work being done here, the photos suggest, but everyone is having fun, too.

The whole visual package is like a catalogue advertising the approach on which this government sold itself: inclusive, accessible, operating with a sort of institutional friendliness. “They were coming up against a government that was 10 years old, had run its course and had adopted this behaviour of being very dour and very serious and very kind of closed,” says Andrew MacDougall, former director of communications for Stephen Harper. “And they kind of thought, well here’s our guy who people like anyway. Let’s let him be him, and be open, likeable and energetic—all these things that played up to who he is and his strengths, and not some kind of version of what they want him to be.”

Playing to strengths is basic political­­—and marketing—smarts, but some are easier to advertise than others. Harper is as introverted as Trudeau is extroverted, MacDougall says, and he most enjoyed the quiet, invisible parts of the job: the economy, security, international summit negotiations. Important issues, to be sure, but you try making an exciting photo of it. Just as it’s tough to imagine the ad that showed Harper at his desk late at night working for Trudeau because it’s not his natural mode, the images in which Trudeau shines would have been awkward torment for his predecessor. The current Prime Minister’s obvious enjoyment of people and crowds of any size makes marketing and political experts swoon: those assets are a gold mine. And there’s a naturally emotive and performative quality to Trudeau that amplifies everything he does; Scotti’s camera loves him. “It happens to get the kind of easy calories in political communication—hug the panda bear, do that kind of stuff. That stuff sticks, it plays to his brand and who he is,” MacDougall says. “Anytime you get the politician doing something he likes in front of a crowd that likes him for it, that’s kind of the holy grail.”

But to get to this point, Trudeau and his team pulled off a bit of a backflip. Long before the campaign got going last summer, he was the target of criticism and attack ads that positioned him as a flimsy dilettante, often in overtly emasculating terms: sparkly visual effects, sniping about his hair, a spotlight on anything that smacked of a self-promoting show pony. The safest and most obvious defensive imagery for his campaign to adopt would have been to stuff him into charcoal suits and park him behind campaign lecterns to emphasize his seriousness, says Goodyear-Grant. Instead, he was rarely seen in a jacket or properly knotted tie, and he spent much of his time frolicking outdoors and balancing babies like live magic tricks. “He didn’t change course in terms of the way he was presenting himself politically; in fact he doubled down on it,” she says. “The difference is it ceased being a liability once he could demonstrate—and he did demonstrate, over and over again—that he had the political weight behind it.”

But in spite of how skilfully his team has built his message, Trudeau still sometimes inspires narrow-eyed suspicion about the staginess of certain moments. After he helped welcome Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in December, Philippe Garneau, president of GWP Brand Engineering, saw in his social media feeds the same criticism of the feel-good photos and footage that everyone else did: why did he have to plant himself at centre stage? To Garneau as an ad guy, that is absurd. “Are you joking?” he says. “Look at the guy. Look at what he made a promise to do. This is such a human story, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.” You can recognize an extremely flattering photo op and also believe in the underlying cause and enjoy being part of a feel-good moment as a human being, he says. “Look, we photograph our food, then we eat it; one is for show and the other is because I was hungry,” says Garneau. “You’re allowed to have both.” (His brother, Marc, is Trudeau’s minister of transport. Philippe was not a Trudeau fan when his brother competed with him for the Liberal leadership in 2013, but he freely admits to being won over since.)

What Trudeau and his team have understood all along—better than most—is that modern marketing is about storytelling. “The brain is not a fact-finding organ,” Garneau says. “It’s first and foremost [about] emotions.” One of the images that sticks with him is last Halloween. Trudeau had been elected, but not yet sworn in as Prime Minister, and he and his family went trick-or-treating—with Trudeau dressed as Han Solo and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau as Princess Leia—trailed by Scotti and news photographers. The gambolling young family looked like an editorial spread from a high-end parenting magazine. But to Garneau, it read as a guy who was legitimately geeked out about a new Star Wars movie, and revelling in the joy that is Halloween when you have small children.

None of which is to say that Trudeau and his team are not very aware of and savvy about the images they create. In his book Brand Command, about Canadian political communication, Alex Marland, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University, quotes an exchange captured on camera between Trudeau and his communications director, Kate Purchase, on the day Trudeau and new cabinet are to be sworn in. He tells Purchase they are “tricking” the assembled media with positioning at Rideau Hall: “Getting off the bus is such an ugly shot that we’re making sure they get the walk over from 24 [Sussex Drive].” For their part, the Prime Minister’s Office says the branding isn’t the point, but the means to an end to make their leadership case to voters. “The Prime Minister and his cabinet have committed to bringing openness, transparency, and accountability to government,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement. “We have also made it a priority to communicate regularly with the press and to engage with Canadians.”

The photos-within-photos they put out—Scotti shoots the Prime Minister squeezing in next to people who take selfies with him—are tidy visual encapsulations of the more accessible democracy the Trudeau government promised, Marland says: it shows a leader who is literally close to and connected to voters, rather than gated off. He detects Trudeau plunging into crowds for selfies less often now than he did during the campaign, possibly due to security concerns. But the selfie photos pack an interesting double-punch, Marland says, because you end up with the typical polished photo put out by the PMO, and also the amateur photo someone takes on their phone, tags and shares. “In my opinion there is absolutely no question that they’re using social media in ways it has not been used,” he says.

There is also the accidental genius of good timing. Silhouetted by a certain orange glow emanating from the south, the boxing, panda-cuddling Canadian Prime Minister who zips jackets around Syrian refugees and marches exuberantly in the Pride parade looks even more appealing. That’s given an international signal boost to the photos that come out of Trudeau’s office: the Internet turns them into memes and passes them around, amused by the stark juxtaposition of what looks like a living, breathing nice-Canadian stereotype against the acid vitriol of Donald Trump. “Canada is getting noticed again—not for anything it’s doing, really, but for who’s at the top. That’s never happened since Trudeau Sr. maybe,” says MacDougall. “People are interested: ‘Who is this young guy from Canada?’ And Canadians like that—we’re suckers for that kind of stuff.”

In academic terms, the coziness built by these efforts is called parasocial interaction—it’s the one-sided attachment people develop for media figures, and the reason why, when we meet a celebrity, we feel like we already know them. The big problem with this in a political context is the bread-and-circuses effect, where citizens get distracted by a personality they like and stop paying attention to issues and policies. But Marland and Goodyear-Grant both point out, with resigned ruefulness, that reams of research in their shared discipline suggests very few people think about those things anyway. Citizens generally form broad impressions of their political leaders, decide whether they like and trust them, and then leave them to handle the details if they do. “Most people are just not paying attention to this stuff. They just don’t care,” Marland says. “So it gives them probably a sense of pride that their Prime Minister seems to be well respected on the international stage.”

The honeymoon for Trudeau and his government has now been rolling for eight months and counting. The Canadian economy is relatively healthy and there’s a certain sunniness to the national mood, helped along by the tone reset of a new government. But eventually, you have to go home and sort out who does the dishes and takes out the garbage. “You can’t be all things to all people, and as you start either avoiding making decisions, or if you make decisions and upset people, then you’re developing a shape,” says Marland. “When you don’t have a shape, it’s very easy for people to project things onto you. It definitely changes the longer you’re in office. It’s inevitable.” When tougher days arrive, it will be unwise for Trudeau’s team to carry on with the shiny images, because they risk looking oblivious to people’s worries and frustrations. And the sheer novelty factor of a young, photogenic, seemingly game-for-anything Prime Minister will also fade with time. “The media eventually is like, ‘How many more photographs can I see of Trudeau doing a one-armed push-up? I’ve seen it, so it’s not news anymore,’ ” says Marland “It creates a degree of cynicism, so it becomes harder for them to do it.”

Perhaps in one of their dude-plomacy hangouts, Obama has told Trudeau how tough it can be to continue to embody an uplifting message when you’re the incumbent and people start inquiring about that hope and change they were promised. “The minute he stops questioning and accepts the status quo and the way it’s always been done, then it puts a lie to, ‘Because it’s 2015,’ ” says Garneau. “For him, the greatest fear would be for them to say, ‘He’s just another politician.’ ”

Garneau thinks about another quintessential challenger brand when he considers the way Trudeau has been marketed. In Apple’s early days advertising the iPod, one ubiquitous campaign featured dancing, joyous people silhouetted on brightly coloured backgrounds. The device represented an enormous leap in technology, and yet the ads said nothing about its features or even what it did—they simply sold you the feeling you would get from buying in. With all those smiling, crowd-rousing, playful images, Trudeau himself has been an iPod launch, Garneau believes—and most people are still enjoying grooving along to the music.

Picking apart iconic Trudeau photos

Maclean’s asked four experts—most of them specialists in imagery, rather than politics—to take a closer look at some key photos released by the Trudeau camp and tell us what they see in them. Learn more about them, and find the photos below.

  • ANGUS TUCKER, executive creative director of John St., a Toronto-based advertising agency with clients including Heinz, President’s Choice and Wiser’s whisky
  • LESLIE J. UREÑA, assistant curator of photographs for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, which is home to an extensive collection of presidential portraits
  • JANICE MCLAREN, head of education at the Photographers’ Gallery, which was the first gallery in the world devoted solely to photography when it was established in London in 1971
  • ALEX MARLAND, a professor in the department of political science at Memorial University and author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control

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