Monday 16 September 2019

Welcome, folks, to the Wild Varadkar Way

Skills usually applied to selling products are now being applied to selling us a government, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

You know how it feels when you see a Magnum ice-cream? Probably you think - oooh, nice, but I shouldn't. Probably, we all feel something like that about all ice-cream.

But, with Magnum, there's an added factor.

Everything about it says luxury and pleasure - the design, the colours and the fonts used in the packaging, the images created by the models who advertise it, people famous mostly for just lying around feeling good.

And the chatter that goes with it. "Luxury tastes this sweet... unleash your wild side... decadence... be true to your pleasure."

The image of a luxurious ice-cream in a pleasurable context make us feel slightly decadent, but ­- hell! - I deserve that spasm of joy.

A lot of thought and money went into creating that feeling when we see a Magnum on sale.

It's marketing. Creating a brand, so you're not just selling the product, you're selling the feeling you associate with it. It works with cars, watches, clothes - anything aimed at the aspirational market.

And the man now in charge of marketing the Government of Ireland learned his trade selling Magnum.

We're in a new era, where political parties are to be sold with the same techniques used to sell ice-cream.

John Concannon started his career in marketing with Dubarry shoes, and moved to Unilever. There, he told, he learned that Magnum isn't just about ice cream, it's all about sex.

In marketing, whatever the product you want to sell, you associate it with things that are attractive. The subliminal message is, accept my product and you'll get all these lovely things that come along with it.

In 2010, Concannon won the Marketer of the Year Award. In that brief, Concannon had a collection of disparate holiday destinations to sell - villages and towns and regions. All offering something nice, but not exactly products that jump off the shelf.

Concannon stitched together a navigable trail, and in just three words - Wild Atlantic Way - associated it with a journey, with untamed nature itself, plus something monumental, the Atlantic Ocean.

The pundits think we'll have an election soon, probably in autumn. The government parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, each seeks to dominate the other. Anything said this side of the election should be treated as part of that campaign. This isn't about reality, it's about parting us from our votes.

Which is where the Magnum effect comes in.

Around the time Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach, he and Concannon had a "philosophical conversation". This, Concannon told the Irish Independent, led to him being hired to head a 'Strategic Communications Unit'.

Why, we wondered, did Varadkar need yet another propaganda outlet? He and his party - and the other parties - bristle with mouthpieces who specialise in spin. Since Garret FitzGerald's days, Fine Gael has attracted countless professionals who produce silk purses on an industrial scale from the sows' ears provided to them by nervous politicians.

But it's about more than spin. For instance, Concannon found almost 450 websites representing government services. Too complex, hard to find what you need, and too costly. He suggested one fairly plain website,, and we'll see how that works out.

The not-so-good part we've seen most clearly with the launch of Project Ireland 2040.

The PI2040 blitz was not the presentation of a policy to which a political party wished to win the support of the citizenry. It was a product launch - light on detail, heavy on image.

The aim, as ever, is to create a brand image, associating certain positive qualities with that brand, and selling it to the market.

In this case, what they're selling to voters is not PI2040, it's not a €116bn project, it's Fine Gael.

You will not find the words Fine Gael in all the hoopla. Fine Gael itself has been rebranded for the occasion. It is now referred to in all the marketing as "the Government of Ireland".

The most impressive part of the product launch was the PI2040 video - two-and-a-half minutes of sheer competence.

It first associates PI2040 with Ardnacrusha, the massive project that enabled rural electrification. It proposes a similar great leap forward for future generations. It's all done in tasteful, attractive animation - except for one 12-second insertion of Varadkar, who delivers the feel-good line that he has "a plan to make Ireland a country that reflects the best of who we are and what we aspire to".

The animation covers a map of Ireland, from which houses and apartments spring up magically, along with factories and all sorts of "green" iconography. Everything on the map created by PI2040 has a machined wood texture, beautifully done. And the veins and arteries of the country are alive with trains and boats and planes and cars, all moving in intricate patterns, so fast that the eye can hardly take it in.

Of course, the detail doesn't matter - we're not getting costings, details, dates and schedules - we're being sold an impression of a country. We're being sold aspirations we already share. And the animation will be brought to life by a solid institution ("the Government of Ireland") that oozes competence.

It's something we desperately want to be true. Buy the current "Government of Ireland" and the litany of failures and disasters and betrayals will stop.

I saw the shorter version of the video in a cinema. You leave the cinema, this little PI2040 feel-good nugget somewhere in the back of your mind, and you walk past the people sleeping in doorways.

You want to visit your 97-year-old relative who's been on a trolley in a hospital corridor for two days, but you get stuck at College Green, because those lovely wooden trains and buses racing around the map - well, that's just fantasy.

The people who promise "the best of who we are" promised in 2007 to end the trolley culture if elected. They've been in office seven years and haven't time to do anything about the trolleys because they're too busy making up excuses for the worsening housing crisis.

And what of Fianna Fail?

It has problems. We remember who they are and what they did. They can't conceal their colours behind a "Government of Ireland" label. Their campaign is already moving, but they already have a brand, and it's not at all attractive.

Still, it's win-win for Michael McGrath. Do well, maybe get a State car; do badly, Micheal Martin gets the boot.

Meanwhile, as the truly gorgeous world of PI2040 is held out to us, a world we can buy simply by voting for those wonderfully competent people, the Government of Ireland, those same people have made such a mess of transport, via the Luas screw-up, that they're now creating chaos with Dublin bus routes.

Luas and taxi drivers and private motorists have institutions fighting their corner. Buses have the Minister for Transport, a private sector enthusiast.

The notion that anyone will take responsibility for the hospital trolley scandal has become quaint.

The homeless - well, as long as no one freezes to death next week, they'll get away with that.

The vultures - well, that's difficult. Fine Gael, on the record, reckons vultures are not a problem, they're a solution.

When you sell Dubarry shoes you know the customer will walk in comfort. Sell Magnum and the customer will regret the calories but enjoy the taste. Sell the Wild Atlantic Way and the customer will be entranced by the scenery.

Because all of these things are real. It's more difficult selling a puff of hot air.

Sunday Independent

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