Dennis Matthews is a conservative strategist and commentator who is a vice-president at the national communications firm Enterprise Canada. He served as an advertising and marketing adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Justin Trudeau’s opponents have never quite figured him out. His fast rise, his ability to inspire legions of followers and his gift for withstanding controversy – most recently, a blackface and brownface scandal that would have delivered a body blow to any other politician – simply defy tradition.
It would be easy to chalk this up to his famous last name. But that would cheapen the sustained effort that went into building a Canadian brand that’s up there with canoes and beavers – one carefully built for his millions of social-media followers. Just last week, he even paddled up to a campaign announcement for a camping subsidy – a made-for-Instagram moment.
So politics may not be the best lens through which to see Mr. Trudeau. In a way, that’s merely what he does for a living. Instead, he is a celebrity – Canada’s first Brand Prime Minister.
The father of modern advertising, David Ogilvy, described a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” While he probably had Coca-Cola in mind more than a world leader, his definition helps ground the image Mr. Trudeau has cultivated so meticulously.
There’s ample evidence he understands this. His political birth in the boxing ring against then-senator Patrick Brazeau was no coincidence. In a later interview with Rolling Stone, he reminisced about the fight, calling it “the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.” And through campaign ads and photo-ops doing the Grouse Grind, walking up an escalator or speaking at a big rally, he furthered a perception of energy and enthusiasm.
The best brands have always found a way to position themselves at the centre of cultural moments to make deeper connections, and Mr. Trudeau has offered a master class in this, from his “because it’s 2015” gender-balanced cabinet to his tweet welcoming refugees to Canada during Donald Trump’s attempted Muslim ban. This outward egalitarianism, along with his celebrity and good looks, contrasted nicely with the rise of global populism, landing him on the cover of Vogue and making him a People-magazine Prime Minister.
Celebrities simply occupy a different space in our culture, and they can survive almost anything. Robert Downey Jr. didn’t let a jail sentence stop him being one of the highest-grossing actors in the world. Even the other Canadian Justin kept his career on track after an N-word-laced video from Mr. Bieber’s youth emerged. While we scratch our heads how he’s still standing, even after the latest revelations seemed to undermine the core of his self-presentation, it’s that same brand that’s giving him a fighting chance. As is the case with celebrities, people know – or think they know – more about Mr. Trudeau than expressed by a single incident, or even a demonstrated pattern of behaviour. The mocking by late-night hosts and political commentators is just part of show business.
It’s why we shouldn’t compare Mr. Trudeau to base and mortal politicians. The closest approximation, in spirit if not politics, is the celebrity-in-chief next door. Donald Trump, the former reality-TV star, summed up his imperviousness thusly: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any votes.” Mr. Trudeau may not be explicitly articulating this, but he is exemplifying it. His celebrity affords him a cadre of diehard fans who treat him like family, and like other celebrities, he benefits from the hangers-on whose incomes and stature benefit from sharing the spotlight. Even at his lowest moment in public life, he was surrounded by fans and an entourage that stayed as true as the concert promoters who want the next tour, no matter what the singer did.
It’s too soon to know if the blackface scandal will be different than how he removed two talented women from cabinet or how he dressed in India. But elections are increasingly won or lost on emotions; voters base their decisions based on how they feel about the brands, rather than the policy specifics. It’s a perfect situation for Brand Trudeau.
And even if voters defeat him, you can’t help but think that won’t be the end of his public life. He’s just too big now. We’ll just see him on the next season of Dancing with the Stars. And his fans will be right there with him, texting in their votes, because the ultimate redemption story will find its way to completion – one way or another.
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