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”]