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The search for the 'severely normal:' the art of the political backdrop

In politics, they are known as potted plants, props, windup toys, diversity drapes or wallpaper.

They are the earnest faces of partisans, the just-plain Dicks and Janes who stand behind politicians to create a smiling backdrop for campaign announcements.

They are also, the experts say, a natural evolution of electioneering.

The guidelines are simple, says Peter Chabursky, who stood behind Stephen Harper during a recent Conservative Party announcement in Lancaster, Ont.

"Smile. Don’t take selfies. That’s about it."

It’s just common sense, adds John Franklin, a member of Harper’s backdrop at the same event.

"Be respectful of the prime minister, be respectful of other people," says Franklin.

It hasn’t always worked that way.

Sometimes the backdrop can go rogue, sending the carefully crafted image and straight-arrow message pitching and yawing out of control.

Such was the case last month when one supporter at a Harper event in Etobicoke, Ont., made headlines by calling out reporters for continuing to hit the Conservative leader with questions on the Mike Duffy spending scandal.

When boy scouts appeared in a British Columbia photo op with Harper last month, Scouts Canada pointed out that its rules forbid using the uniform as a political pom-pom.

A backdrop has even risen to the level of proxy policy, worthy of analysis and criticism.

Earlier this month in Quebec City, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau saw his message derailed when the 14 male candidates arrayed behind him prompted questions on what the party was doing to recruit women.

Sometimes the pre-staging becomes news.

In Alberta’s general election this spring, the Wildrose party turfed a candidate after he joked, "we need lots of brown people in the front," and it was picked up by a microphone.

McGill University's Gil Troy says wallpapering is a natural evolution of political imagery that has marched more or less in lockstep with photography.

Before the point-and-shoot, political representations tended to focus on the dignity of the leader and the responsibility of the office, says Troy.

But as photos increasingly revealed the compelling, eye-catching power of politicians surrounded by the people, it naturally followed that the image could gently be steered to reveal a leader in vox populi embrace.

"It has the force of showing your popular touch," says Troy, who studies political image-making.

Stephen Carter, a campaign strategist for former Alberta premier Alison Redford, says the human wall is psychological and elemental.

"The idea is that you tend to vote for a candidate or a party that you see yourself in," says Carter.

The challenge is making sure those who pose with the politician don’t rebound on the candidate down the road.

"You don’t want Tom, Dick and Harry up there if Tom might have been convicted of pedophilia 13 years ago," Carter says.

"You want to find people who are severely normal and the challenge with that is ­— and forgive me for saying this — but in politics finding the severely normal can be a bit challenging."

Troy says ultimately in "the blurring of the lines between show business and the people’s business," the voter loses.

Whereas voters once used elections to flex their democratic muscles, take on leaders, ask questions and demand answers, they are now increasingly kept at a distance and reduced to the role of cheer team.

It’s "the weaponization of the voter rather than authentic communication with the voter," Troy says. "It breeds cynicism. It breeds passivity."

Not so, say Franklin and Liberal party member Karen Littlewood, a Barrie, Ont., teacher who was behind Trudeau at a recent announcement

"I’m not a prop," she says. "If you’re standing behind someone that you believe in, it’s not as hard.

"I’m OK with this."

— With files from Murray Brewster and Andy Blatchford.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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