So Canada has a new prime minister. On Monday, Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader, became the second-youngest Canadian head of state in history, marking the end of almost 10 years of Stephen Harper and Conservative dominion, and trouncing the third party candidate, Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party.
Though lasting only 11 weeks, this campaign was one of Canada’s longest, and reports on the new era have posited it as a referendum on climate change and the economy; on immigration and the niqab.
But largely overlooked in all the analysis has been the issue, which played a surprisingly large part in the various bids for office, of hair.
This is not a joke. And it is not a frivolous observation. Dismiss it as north of the border tomfoolery and miss a trick.
Hair has not played such a big part in a political contest as far back as I can remember. It puts the flurry of conversation around Hillary Rodham Clinton’s do-switcheroos, John Edward’s $400 cut and Mitt Romney’s crowning glory in the shade.
And it suggests that, like it or not, in a social media world where humor and pictures have a very real power, successful candidates need to be clever enough to use them strategically, lest they be used by others against them.
Each candidate’s hair had its own (unofficial) Twitter account, and Mr. Mulcair’s beard had two: @trudeaushair, @graybouffant (for Mr. Harper), @MulcairBeard and @Mulcairsbeard (the latter has more followers).
Hill & Knowlton Strategies in Canada even created a special set of election emojis that used hair to stand in for each of the candidates. As of Election Day, they had been downloaded 54,894 times, according to Sarah Brandon, the vice president for corporate development.
“Each of the candidates had a very distinct look,” Ms. Brandon said, explaining why Hill & Knowlton chose hair as communications semiology. “As soon as you saw the hair, you knew exactly which leader was being referenced.”
Indeed, as much as anything over the last 78 days, hair came to stand for each candidate: Mr. Trudeau, called “hair apparent” by the Economist in acknowledgment of the legacy of his father, the former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as well as his lush brown curls; Stephen Harper, a.k.a. “Lego hair,” thanks to his side-parted and immobile resemblance to the all-in-one toppers of the little plastic people; and Mr. Mulcair and his beard, itself an anomaly in a country that has not elected a bearded prime minister since 1896, when Mackenzie Bowell resigned.
There’s a lesson here to be learned. It starts back in May.
That was when Mr. Harper (who resigned his post after the Liberals’ decisive victory) used Mr. Trudeau’s hair as a small jab at the potential threat, releasing an ad called “The interview” that suggested, in various not-so-subtle ways, that the Liberal leader was not yet seasoned enough to guide the country, though he did have “nice hair.” The aim: to plant the seed that he was a lightweight pretty boy.
Indeed, Mr. Trudeau’s hair has been something of a talking (or stalking) point since his ascension to Liberal Party leadership back in 2013, when The Huffington Post Canada created a slide show of his “memorable hair moments,” calling them “wild thing,” “Mr. Slick” and “Grease Lightening” (among others).
Although Mr. Trudeau initially tried to rise above the hair thing, announcing (in response to the Conservative ad), “I won’t be talking about beards or hair,” the New Democratic Party took the dare on its chin, releasing its own ad overtly satirizing the Conservative ad, with the same hair tagline applied to Mr. Harper.
There was even a host of memorabilia created around Mr. Mulcair’s beard, including N.D.P. orange buttons with the slogan ”beard a part of it” and posters with the slogan, “I’m voting for the beard.”
In the end, there was so much hair discussion that even the writer Margaret Atwood felt compelled to weigh in with a satirical op-ed piece in the National Post in August pointing out that Mr. Harper travels with a personal stylist and that maybe he shouldn’t open that particular can of hair gel.
Though the column was quickly taken down by the website, reportedly for “fact checking” reasons, it served only to make the hair discussion even more prominent — partly thanks to a tweet from Ms. Atwood. The column was later reinstated in slightly edited form, but not before it spawned its own hashtag: #hairgate.
Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, sensed the opportunity in the Atwood situation, tweeting, “while we’re all on the subject of hair, a reminder of what really matters” and releasing his own video with some nice script noting that Mr. Harper “can’t stop talking about Justin Trudeau’s hair,” but that he, Mr. Trudeau, had other things to talk about. Like the middle class. In other words, he took the weapon and used it to his own ends, instead of simply ignoring it because it was too superficial.
The hair hoo-ha culminated last weekend, two days before Election Day, when the Liberals released a pretty catchy cartoon entitled “Your Guide to Canadian Political Hair,” which used the morphing hairstyles of the candidates to suggest that 1. no matter what ’do Mr. Trudeau sported, it didn’t change the potential of his policies; and that 2. no matter the hair, there was little difference between Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper.
Ridiculous? A distraction from the real subjects? Or a smart and humorous way to push the identification levers currently available via imagery and optics (Who doesn’t have hair issues? Who can’t relate to these stereotypes?) to create an instant narrative, one of alternative options, youth and difference?
I, and apparently the majority of the Canadian electorate, reach the latter conclusion. It’s a strategy also shared, it’s worth pointing out, by Mrs. Clinton, who has managed to outwit her critics by making jokes out of her own image history and preferences, whether by noting that she won’t go gray in the White House because “I’ve been coloring my hair for years,” or posting her first Instagram picture ever of a rack of pantsuits with the caption “hard choices.”
This is obviously not to say that a candidate doesn’t need to focus on substance as well as style, but that poking fun at your own and others’ carefully constructed image is not just a fig — sorry, maple — leaf. It’s an effective part of the political arsenal. Republicans should take note.