Political advertisements have evolved in Canada and North America from being predominantly issue-based to being image-based. The development of new kinds of media and the age of the seven-second sound bite have indeed contributed to this. When this year's Canadian federal election was announced, it was no surprise that all of the parties' candidates, volunteers, pollsters and spin doctors hit the ground running. The governing Conservative Party had actually been running anti-Liberal ads for months, focusing on the leadership traits of Stephane Dion.
It should be noted here that the two parties with the most realistic shot at winning are honing in on the images of the other leaders, rather than the other parties. The New Democrats, Bloc Québécois, and newly-prominent Green Party can all focus on issues and policy during the campaign because they all have no realistic chance of winning and tend to have their 'pet issues' that they always campaign on. The Liberals and Conservatives, however, being the two brokerage parties, are focusing on projecting images of their leaders as strong and capable, while attacking the other and trying to plant seeds of doubt and mistrust in the minds of voters.
So, what kinds of images are the Liberals and Conservatives trying to create with regards to their leaders?
One thing that we can glean from early campaign ads and public appearances is that both parties are going the "regular guy" route. Stephane Dion and Stephen Harper have both abandoned suits and ties and are more often seen in sweaters. In addition, Harper has become noticeably slimmer, while Dion dropped the rimless eyeglasses in favour of more fashionable rims. The first television and internet ads showed Harper espousing the virtues of fatherhood and Dion talking about his favourite outdoor activities. This is a direct contrast with years past, when both tried to use their extraordinary abilities or elite social standing in order to impress voters. It is obvious that the parties are trying to connect with regular voters on a level that they can understand and identify with. But the question is, do voters buy it?
When one looks at the leaders' backgrounds and track records it is evident that the 'regular guy' image is a bit of a disguise for both. Family-wise, both Harper and Dion are not bluebloods but come from very comfortable middle-class origins. They both excelled at academics, as Harper's economics background and Dion's Ph.D in political science demonstrate.
Image makeovers are not new. The old Reform/Canadian Alliance went a long way in trying to make both Preston Manning and Stockwell Day more palatable to Canadians. Manning received a well-publicized image makeover in the mid-1990s with the help of a large public relations firm. And the public is still recoiling at the sight of Day jet skiing up to the shore of a lake in a wetsuit in 2000 after winning a by-election just before the federal campaign began. In both cases, the Reform/Alliance was attempting to alter the public images of their leaders from right-wing 'fuddy-duddies' to more progressive and energetic dynamos. In both cases, it did not work.
One interesting note is that this time around, the Liberals are doing something similar to what they did in the 2004 campaign, when Paul Martin had been riding a wave of popularity for some time. Every candidate's poster included a picture of Martin in the corner with the caption "Team Martin" beside the local candidate's name. After a series of public gaffes, Martin's image suffered, and posters were re-printed without any reference to him. During the 2008 campaign, Dion was prominent in the first two weeks of advertising, but the campaign organizers suddenly dropped references to him in the next series of ads.
Ultimately, people develop their own perceptions of political leaders. To what degree they base their votes on public images or policy platforms varies from person to person. Some people vote according to their perception of the leader, some the local candidate, and some for a particular party. It is up to the voters to separate fact from fiction. Is Stephen Harper a warm, caring family man or a stiff, emotionless control freak? Is Stephane Dion an avid sportsman or an awkward, nerdy egghead? The answers are undoubtedly somewhere in-between in both cases.