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Style Consultants

Variety On The Political Menu

by Ray Deonandan

Nov. 22, 1999

This article was actually written during the last Canadian federal elections in 1997. Some of the references may be a bit outdated, and some of the descriptions of particular public figures may seem a tad unfair today. But I think the message is still sound.

 

Collapsing moderators on TV debates notwithstanding, a certain malaise has befallen Canada’s latest federal election campaign. Not that Chretien, Manning, Charest, McDonough and their ilk aren’t caricable figures loved by editorial cartoonists and stand-up comedians alike, but somehow there is nothing more to set them apart from each other, nor indeed from ourselves, than overpriced haircuts and outrageous accents.

And, yes, we do want them to be different, not only to provide us with a varied political selection menu, but also to give us some much-needed confidence that our elected leaders are indeed better, smarter and more capable than our neighbours, co-workers, pizza guys and younger siblings.

So why is this year’s crop so lacking? Where are the Trudeaus and Broadbents of yesteryear, the Rene Bouchards and, yes, the Brian Mulroneys of elections past? As despicable (and, sometimes, as loved) as those men were to various constituencies across the country, they stood out as strong independently-minded individuals who could run faster, jump higher and dodge innuendos more adeptly than the typical Bay street boob.

The answer lies among the ranks of the favourite white collar profession of the 90’s: consultancy. Every candidate employs the services of an army of consultants –style consultants, voice and acting coaches, media savvy specialists, body language fixers and even hair and fashion consultants. It is no surprise, then, that they all come across more as products than as people.

This, ordinarily, would not be a problem for we consumer-minded peons of the Nike era. Daily, we delude ourselves that our panoply of lifestyle choices are real and not illusory. We convince ourselves that our dining, fashion and entertainment choices are not, in fact, dictated and decided by market forces and subtle advertising influences.

We have accepted this out of fatigue and apathy, and from an understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, fashion and entertainment choices probably ain’t that important. The ilk of media consultancy has strong-armed our minds and bodies in all other arenas of personal decision-making, why not in politics, as well?

It has become a concern, however, because the armies of politicians’ stylists and coaches have failed to differentiate their products from the competitor’s. Each candidate sounds the same, dresses the same, and contorts his or her facial muscles in exactly the same way when uttering that detestably manipulative (yet oh so media savvy) clause: “My fellow Canadians…”

The work of style consultants in the political arena is poor and transparent, and perhaps that is what makes the trend so offensive. Alexa McDonough does a very shoddy Meryl Streep imitation in one of her election commercials; one can almost see the acting coach egging her on from the sidelines. Jean Charest out-suaves American self-help guru Tony Robbins in one of his youth-oriented infomercials. Preston Manning is just plain goofy-looking in his new haircut and ensemble. And perhaps the wisest and most effective media team is that of the Prime Minister who have apparently instructed him to “just lay low and stay out of trouble.”

We don’t ask for much. We’ve abandoned all hope of getting party leaders whose platforms are based on truth and fairness. We know we’re being manipulated by spin doctors and pollsters. And we know that the self-declared “leaders” of our society are committee-formed products, not so far removed from the various indistinguishable sandwiches available at McDonald’s. These days, however, all we ask for is a little variety in the menu

Ray Deonandan’s personal website is www.deonandan.com