Politics, Personality, Power: One man’s curious rise to Number 10

By Phoebe Bohana

In the last month, the UK political system has demonstrated very powerfully the differences between past and present political systems. Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative party after he won over an astonishing amount of party members. How did he become the favourite to win? In this article we look at the strategic intent behind political personas and the changing media environment that operates in conjunction with Britain’s political climate. Although the fabricated presentations of these political figures through branding and public relations helps their career prospects however, does it hinder the clear thinking of voters?

Boris Johnson has become somewhat celebrated for his controversial opinions. Last year, he compared women wearing burkas to “letter boxes” and stated that it was “ridiculous” that they choose to wear them. The year before, he recited a colonial poem in a Burmese temple but was stopped by the UK ambassador due it being inappropriate. In 2015, he further damaged his public image when he knocked over a ten-year-old child during a game of rugby in Tokyo. His reputation suffered a further blow following his endorsement of the Brexit myth that Britain would save 350 million pounds a week if we left the European Union. It seems reasonable therefore, to ask how such a controversial individual secured the position of Prime Minister?

Johnson regularly finds himself being disparaged by the media. For instance, in 2012, a rather unflattering image was seen of him dangling from a zip-wire above a laughing crowd of onlookers. Following the event, Boris Johnson during an interview then glibly brushed this aside by announcing himself as ‘the prat on a zip wire’. Research carried out by the East Carolina University, in the USA, proved that voters like politicians who are able to laugh at their own expense. Is this a growing trend amongst the Conservative Party? Theresa May also adopted this approach last year when she was captured dancing with school children during a trade mission in Africa. After being heavily criticised by the media for her ‘wooden’ dancing, May walked out to ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA at a Conservative Party conference. It seemed to have worked in her favour; party members and political correspondents praised her self-depreciating humour.

In Boris Johnson’s case, he is often portrayed as ‘an incompetent, bumbling buffoon’; with unruly hair and a dangling shirttail, ‘BoJo’ became more of a laughing stock than a serious political figure. Despite the media’s comical portrayal of Johnson’s car-crash appearance, it has not been detrimental to his political career. This persona makes it easier for the public also to perceive him as being the ‘harmless buffoon’. This misapprehension can easily detract from recognising him as the most powerful figure in current British politics. When Johnson was named Britain’s new Prime Minister, the Daily Mirror published on their front page images of his numerous gaffes with the caption: ‘It’s really not funny anymore’.

Boris Johnson is the fabricated reconstruction of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. One should not ignore the strategic intent behind the adoption of this persona neither, the difference that such a close affinity to personality can make in politics. The ‘human’ element of political branding means that people are likely to develop an informal ‘parasocial’ relationship with politicians. Johnson’s appearance on ‘Have I Got News For You’ and his columns in the Spectator magazine prior to his role as MP may have made it easier for him to build an authentic political identity.

Nevertheless, we should not forget that the making of this political persona requires more than the effort of one individual. Looking back a few decades it becomes patently obvious that the branding of a political figure is both a demanding and highly professional undertaking. An example of this was Saatchi and Saatchi’s success in branding what eventually became ‘Thatcherism’.

In the United States President’s Johnson and Nixon campaigns had used professional branding to considerable effect. This branding success was instrumental in Margaret Thatcher adopting Saatchi and Saatchi, advertising company, in her premiership campaign. The agency’s crucial role was to reinvent a relatively unknown Education Secretary into what became known as The Iron Lady. This Iron Lady was to remain in power as Prime Minister for the next eleven years seemingly to prove that branding is an essential vote winner. This fact was not lost on Tony Blair, nor Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell who ultimately reinvented the Labour Party into ‘New Labour’.

What effects if any has the age of technology introduced into political branding? Social media has proven to be an effective way of building a political base. The use of social media to influence political motives is more prolific in America than the United Kingdom. A recent example of this is the way in which Donald Trump has utilised the social media platform Twitter, particularly in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Anthony Scaramucci recalled that Trump believed that by using Twitter it meant that there was no separation between his brand and the media. Which allowed Trump to communicate directly with the American public. In contrast to Boris, Trump has actively bypassed the mainstream media through his social media account and used it to manhandle public attention effectively. Trump’s rise to power highlights the astonishing influence of branding in politics. He was an entrepreneur who successfully marketed his way to Presidency.

Comparisons can be drawn between the changes that are occurring in our political sphere, with the dystopian future presented by Charlie Brooker in Black Mirror’s ‘The Waldo Moment’. As quoted in the show: “Waldo is a construct: people not only accept, but embrace”. Does the superficiality of online culture divert public focus away from policies in politics and firmly position it towards the branding of charismatic politicians? I do not believe this to be so, we the public have a responsibility to seek clarity and our judgement should not be clouded by branding.


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