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Last modified: September 29, 2008

Marketing Failure in Canada?

How to Fix the Green Shift, in today’s Toronto Star, is a sobering analysis of the impact of the Liberal Party’s proposed carbon tax on the Canadian national election. The bad news is that the carbon tax, called Green Shift by the Liberal Party, appears to be hurting the party’s chances in the Oct. 14 election. The better news is that the problem may be more message delivery than substance. Whatever the results of the Canadian election, carbon tax advocates in the United States and elsewhere will be able to build upon the Liberal Party’s experience.

Following are excerpts from the article, by the Star’s Sarah Barmak. We recommend that you read the full article.

“After the Liberal rank and file comes to grips with the results of the Oct. 14 election – which seems poised to turn out poorly for the troubled party – one question may loom large: was the Green Shift really that bad of an idea, or did Stéphane Dion fail to sell it to Canadians?

Maple_Leaf_Halifax.jpg“In many ways, a carbon tax should make sense to Canada’s electorate. Canadians place the environment near the top of the list of things they consider most when going to the polls, according to a Sept. 13 Angus Reid poll. …

“Yet another recent poll shows that whatever enthusiasm the Liberals had succeeded in inspiring about their environmental platform over the summer has evaporated. …This even though almost half of respondents believe pricing greenhouse gas emissions is a good idea. In fact, a majority of respondents – 66 per cent – believe the proposed plan will hurt low-income families, singles and seniors, even though cuts to income, personal and business taxes are part of the plan. …

“Are the Liberals mis-marketing the Green Shift, and shooting themselves in the foot in the process?

“On the surface, political campaigning might not seem to have much in common with the marketing of a product. In some ways, however, it makes sense to approach the Green Shift as a complex product that needs to be explained, packaged and sold to an electorate that doesn’t have the time or inclination to muddle through detailed documents on the plan. …

"’An emotional campaign . . . . would be one way of getting past objections around the tax,’ says David Dunne, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. ‘Make people feel warm and fuzzy about it. (The Liberals) seem to have slipped up on the emotional component. Their advertising is pretty boring, to be honest.’

“Also central in assuaging voter concern about the plan’s cost: Making sure they know what’s in it. According to one expert on climate change, the Liberal plan will be effective in reducing emissions. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspaper. …

“In some ways, Dion’s difficulty pinpointing a central slogan for his environmental policy mirrors the struggles of Obama to present his proposals on the economy, health care, and energy in a way that is easy for voters to digest.

"’I see some parallels between Dion and Obama in that they both avoid overly simplistic discourse,’ says Professor Ron Smyth, a linguistics expert who researchers marketing at the University of Toronto. ‘They try to be clear without insulting the public, while [Canadian Premier, the Conservative Stephen] Harper and [John] McCain are masters at reducing complex issues to simplistic slogans and hot-button issues.’

“In another sense, Dion is grappling with selling a complex solution to a problem – climate change – that is itself notoriously difficult to explain. …

“When a party markets a complex idea during an unexpected election, the rules of the game would seem to inherently favour the other side.

"’The most important thing when trying to sell a big idea like that is it’s a lot easier to poke holes in it than to sell it,’ explains David Soberman, an expert in marketing strategy from Rotman. ’The opposition is in a better position because they can cherry-pick ideas that might not be attractive to the general public while ignoring other aspects.’

“… No one expects (or wants) Dion to grow a beard and wave signs outside the gates of coal-burning power plants. Some marketing experts say changes to the Liberal campaign’s choice of words might be a less painful way to win the hearts of voters.

“For one thing, Dion could think twice about repeating that ugly word, ‘tax’ – replayed ad nauseam by Conservative attack ads. …

“Ultimately, whether voters ‘get’ a politician’s message reflects directly on the politician doing the explaining – not just the speechwriters or the media – in the eyes of the electorate.”

Photo: Flickr / archer10 (Dennis)

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