Defining all that is Canada

Molson Canadian’s latest ads have nailed our schizophrenic national identity.

Marketing Magazine, May 4, 1998   

A twist of the screw-cap to the fine — and fearless — Canuckleheads behind the marketing of Molson Canadian.


After a sometimes baffling start nearly five years ago (some of those initial “I am Canadian” spots were a tad overwrought), Canadian’s brand managers and their agency advisors have found what’s at the core of the Canadian soul: a vague embarrassment about the strange conglomeration of disparate, uncommunicative solitudes that have been mashed together in a Chilean strip along the 49th parallel to form an approximation of a country.


The upside of that, of course, is that by being nothing in particular, Canadians can be everything. And from vague embarrassment, thankfully, comes the instinctive desire to make self-deprecating jokes.


We can keep holding those pointless CBC Town Halls until Peter Mansbridge’s Rogaine starts to work and we’ll still be no closer to forging a nation in any conventional sense of the term out of this string of border towns. Those fusty Victorians in Charlottetown knew what they were doing in at least one respect. They called this a confederation. It’s a dominion, too. Neither one is a nation. Maybe if they’d preceded “confederation” with the adjective “loose” we wouldn’t be in such a twist all the time.


Canadians have just one thing in common: we’re not Americans. More accurately, our one shared belief is that we’re not quite Americans. And that’s the schizophrenic, self-contradictory bolus of shameful joy that the newest Molson Canadian campaign from Toronto agency MacLaren McCann has started pivoting on.


The tone was set with the typing chimps in the teaser spot. All those Royal Commissions, Can Lit studies programs and soporific sovereignty debates produce about as much sense as an infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of typewriters.


Transit ads for Canadian have already appeared spoofing all of the high-minded institutional efforts to foster some kind of Canadian self-knowledge and pride through insignificant bits of trivia. (Give a nation its identity through trivia, and you get a trivial identity.)


Even better than that brilliant bit of subversion, though, are the “Sacrilege Minutes” that Molson Canadian underwrites on The Comedy Network. The spot in which goalie “Jacques Strappe” invents the athletic support is a wonderful shot-by-shot take on the overwrought Heritage Minute showing Jacques Plante’s decision to don the first goalie mask. (This one commercial alone is funny enough to almost eliminate the foul stench of flop-sweat wafting from The Comedy Network/Baton’s Open Mike With Mike Bullard, which in itself offers another fine example of an ancient Canucklehead paradigm. Canadians succeed most brilliantly when they imitate Americans — Pat Bullard — or Brits or both — Lorne Michaels and Graydon Carter come immediately to mind. Telling a Canadian to act like a Canadian is like telling him to bite his teeth.)


If ever there was an odious chunk of official culture that demands rude mockery, those wretched Heritage Moments are it. They’re so awful they seem to have been conceived as a federal make-work project for parodists. The bad acting, the creaky, predictable plots and the tone of starchy, dreary moral instruction all add up to indisputable proof that we’ve never really left our Victorian past in the past. And why are they all about stuff we were taught in public school? Why not something Canadians don’t know about but might appreciate discovering?


“Hey, you joyless prig of a maudit anglais, you got chips in my cheese curd!”


“Hey yourself, you xenophobic frog hillbilly, you got cheese curd on my chips!”


“At that moment, Canada’s two fearful solitudes melded into a thrombotic snack treat.”


That’s the kind of Heritage Minute I think we could all get behind. The only hope is that future generations will laugh reflexively at the mention of the Heritage Minutes, the same way folks of a certain age can’t help but giggle whenever someone whistles the five plaintive notes of the “Hinterland Who’s Who” theme.


With all the talent running around loose in the Canadian advertising and production businesses, someone must have searched long and hard to ferret out the otherwise unemployable liabilities dragooned into producing those Heritage Minutes. But why embarrass them any further? They’ve probably had to sit in crowded movie theatres, sinking lower in their seats as their work is greeted with snorts of derision and laughter in all the wrong places. That, and having these horrible things on their consciences, is a punishment crueler than anything even the most dedicated and demented sadist could dream up.


It does say something for our strength of character that we’re so universally inoculated against ham-handed efforts to make us proud to be Canadians. Like our lack of a national identity, this isn’t something to be lamented or fussed over, or fretted about or remedied — especially not remedied, please — but a source of pride. And that’s why Molson and its wacky monkeys are so on the money in their definition of all that is Canada.