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Ben Griffin: a candidate you can trust

September 20th, 2011 · No Comments

By Emina Gamulin

More than a few eyebrows must have been raised in August when Trinity-Spadina residents received a surprise copy of the Women’s Post food and wine issue in their mailboxes.

An image of MPP candidate Sarah Thomson, the same image she uses in her election materials, is found on the cover of the magazine she publishes under the cover line: “Sarah Thomson weighs in on the tough choice facing Ontario voters.”

This was the second time she featured herself on the cover. The first time she more boldly declared herself “Toronto’s next mayor” in advance of the municipal election, provoking one blogger to dub her “Toronto’s queen of all vanity media.”

Whether this move breaks any elections rules seems to be a grey area. Candidates are technically not allowed to spend personal money on their own campaigns exceeding $1,240. They are also not allowed to advertise during the blackout period preceding the election.

However, Thomson said that she checked to make sure she was not breaking any rules. Under the law, it could be argued that this is not technically advertising and that the piece had news value. Having read the editorial where she recounts a supposed dream she had about ships captained by leaders of political parties as she decides on which one to board, the Gleaner  would disagree, but it is unlikely that Elections Ontario will follow-up and penalize Thomson.

Her defense that she graced the cover because there was a lack of suitable subjects is laughable, but to say, as some have, that this move will not give her a political advantage does not hold up in the face of the evidence. Advertising works, the elections laws are in place for a reason, and name recognition is a huge component of how voters make their decisions.

According to a study by political scientists Cindy Kam and Elizabeth Zechmeister, it gives candidates a strong advantage. In their field research, they placed lawn signs for a fictitious candidate by the name Ben Griffin near a local school during an actual election in Nashville, Tennesee. Nearly a quarter of those exposed to the signs placed Griffin in their top three choices.

Of course, Thomson is not the first political candidate in history to use space in a publication to their advantage. Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) stayed on as an environmental columnist for Eye Weekly (now The Grid) when he ran for city council, a move considered controversial at the time. Frank Stronach put himself on the cover of a publication he owned, Focus on York, in 1988 when he was running for MP. Stronach lost the election, and according to an unofficial biography, he also lost the support of his editorial staff, who walked out in protest to what they saw as his shameless self promotion.

While election legislation could use clarification in dealing with grey areas such as this one, perhaps the best defense against the name recognition effect is an informed voter. Kam and Zechmeister found that recognition became a less prominent decision making factor when more politically relevant information was presented.

In other words, don’t blame us if you vote for Ben Griffin.

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