Popping candy politics prioritises publicity over policies

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With the date of the UK general election set as 7 May 2015 – and dissolution of Parliament therefore already determined as 30 March, we’re in a period of what I’m calling ‘popping candy politics’ that prioritises publicity over policies.

As an example, last week brought us hashtag #pinkbus as the Labour party chose a pink minibus for a tour of the country that was intended to connect with female voters.

The result was a focus on the colour of the paintwork – should it really have been pink (or as claimed by the politicians, was it a cerise or magenta shade)? The BBC asked ‘women who drive vans’ for their alternate designs – that’s really getting into a serious debate.

Next question – would it be driven by female drivers? The answer, according to Huffington Post was given by Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman:

“Unite [the union] has provided us with a driver and blow me down they’ve managed to find a woman with one of these [special] licenses,” she says smiling, before adding, with only a hint of sarcasm: “We’ve had lots of doctrinal discussions, such as: should we be alright with a male driver?”

The plan for ‘kitchen table’ discussions around issues deemed to be of interest to women (childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and political representation) led to charges that the approach is patronising. The suggestion is that women aren’t interested in broader issues – and it is arguable that labelling certain issues as of specific interest to women reduces their perceived importance in society.

However, from a publicity point of view, undoubtedly #pinkbus got people talking, and taking to Twitter with creative satirical images as picked up by the Telegraph.

From a feminist perspective, pink needn’t even be an issue. Naomi Wolf argued in favour of princesses (following the Royal Wedding in 2011), apparently Disney has been reflecting fourth-wave feminism and the association of pink with fluffy girly things is only a (relatively recent) social construct open to being reclaimed and redefined (as observed in this Guardian piece – without irony in its Women’s section).

Maybe the really radical political PR move would have been to be pink and proud – or at least have used the #pinkbus colour as an opportunity to talk about how women’s interest and involvement in politics is generally positioned in stereotypical and gendered terms.

For reference, consider how the media views women in politics such as the Guardian’s 2013 Stylewatch feature on home secretary Teresa May’s appearance as a fashion power play statement or the year before, the Daily Mail focus on her weight loss and choice of Franch label La Petite S*****. Such articles maybe wouldn’t be an issue if a similar lens was applied routinely to male politicians. To be fair male and female politicians are featured in this fashion Guardian article from January but the implication is that a focus on appearance is a way of engaging women in politics.

But back to the #pinkbus – which is only one example of what we’ll experience in the UK over the next however many days with the focus on triviality of ‘popping candy politics’ i.e. all carbonated fizz with no useful ingredients. Such nonsense reaches a wider world attention thanks to social media – and the global popularity of Daily Mail and Guardian in particular online. Although I doubt the UK is alone in this demonstration of ‘popping candy politics’.

All political parties now have an army of publicists coming up with story angles they feel will get the attention of the media (especially that which doesn’t cover political issues usually) as well as generating social media buzz and word of mouth among the general public. As such, the publicity approach reflects a standard AIDA marketing hierarchy of effects communications model: attention leading to interest before decision and action. I feel Seligman’s Learned Helplessness theory is more appropriate for the increasing disengagement, despair and apathy many people will undoubtedly feel.

Perhaps political parties would do better to employ an army of propagandists to reflect Taylor’s definition of the term as involving “the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way” (as noted by Peter Johnston ahead of the British Library’s 2013 Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition.

We have to accept that political PR is primarily partisan but from t his propaganda perspective, at least then we’d be subject to ideas not just Fizz Wizz/Space Dust/Cosmic Candy or any other brand of “popping candy politics”. Or has the promotional approach to politics, with PR practitioners behind the wheel, driven too far down the road for a more serious prioritisation of policies over publicity?

[By the way, in researching this post, I came across a new product, SoundyCandy named as top innovation at the recent ISM (International Sweets and Biscuits Fair) in Cologne, which has the tagline: The Candy That Twists Your Senses, a fetching pink brand colour and a tongue-poking logo that crackles when you hover over it – see http://www.soundycandy.com. Perhaps the ideal icon for “popping candy politics”]

2 COMMENTS

  1. Heather, a couple of queries came to mind as I read your (very) interesting post on tactics regarding the upcoming elections (particularly as a Canadian federal election will be held in October of this year, latest–the majority government may choose to hold it earlier).

    First, although you must have a good idea of the number of elected female Parliamentarians there are (in any given party), do you also have a sense of what is the female (vs. male) communications population in the departments or party headquarters? Or, do you know if the campaign and their tactics have been outsourced to agencies/consultancies that specialize in political promotion/propaganda? If yes, are there many women in senior roles, who might be helping to devise these tactics? (Note that I’m not suggesting they are successful tactics, rather the sense of whether they are truly “female-centric” or simply what men thinks 50 per cent of the voting electorate want to see and hear….)

    On the other hand (and through the lens of our upcoming election), I keep reading and hearing about how the more-senior members of the population are most likely to vote in elections at any level (in Canada that is three levels: federal, provincial/territorial and municipal)…I’m betting the same is true in the UK (or any country where voting is NOT a civil obligation by law).

    So…even if you or I find the use of colour and slogans, etc., offensive, do you think the same would be true of women in the (say) 65+ year category? Think of the “traditional” housewife of the 1950s and 60s, who raised two-five children, and loved nothing more than a special evening out with her bread-winning husband, which meant getting her hair done and dressing up to the nines….

    Yes, I’m speaking in sweeping generalizations, and definitely not in relation to the first-wave (or would the 60s be second-wave) feminists…but I’m trying hard to think of the “strategy” (what and why) behind such tactics in 21st-century Britain!

  2. Judy – thanks for the comment. Lots of interesting questions and points. I don’t know if women were behind the campaign or not, but there have been some interesting responses in the media that have an interesting take on this.

    Here is the Telegraph’s Sophy Ridge (anti-Labour publication) who says she hates the pink bus (but likes the idea of a women’s campaign) and raised the question about the bus colour: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/11404815/Labours-pink-bus-stinks-heres-why.html (Her piece is in the women’s section).

    Also in the Telegraph is Dan Hodge’s take (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11405309/Labour-needs-to-park-its-stupid-pink-van.html) – he’s a former Labour Party and GMB trade union official. He argues that it was the men in the party who set up the women with this idea. I’m not sure if that’s more or less patronising!

    To be honest, I’m not sure that there is an answer either way on women and dumb ideas (IMHO) like this, since there seem to be both men and women arguing for and against the #pinkbus.

    Is age a factor here? Again, I don’t think the fuss about the bus necessarily splits that way. There are issues that do divide that way (apparently equal sex – gay – marriage was one) but I’m not sure if the pink element does.

    My conclusion is that there wasn’t necessarily a strategy here in terms of the use of pink. It seems almost like the female politicians involved were caught off-guard – but shouldn’t have been since it was obviously questions would be asked and it gave the media a bit of popping candy fizz on the story.

    I don’t think they will have done any research or used any demographic or other insight in their decision either. Mind you, given the timing of its launch, I’m surprised it wasn’t painted in 50 Shades of Grey!

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