By Saskia Kowalchuk
On August 13, 2021, just two days before the writ for the 44th Canadian federal election was drawn, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) released an ad via Twitter decrying the impending campaign. This ad, more properly recognizable as a video meme, depicted a scene from the 1971 children’s movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s face superimposed on the body of the spoiled Veruca Salt. In the video Trudeau’s mouth moves, marionette-like, in time with Salt’s tantrums. Puppet-like, Trudeau move as Salt sings her anthem of entitlement “I Want It Now.” In the CPC’s meme, the “it” in question is a majority. Trudeau, in short, selfishly called an election to get what he wants. Just two days later the video was removed from Twitter, due to a copyright claim under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but not before it was roundly described as juvenile, amateurish, and inappropriate by critics, CPC MPs, and the general public (Almidi, 2021; Global News, 2021).
While the video was vastly at odds with the CPC’s typical brand, it readily conformed to several formal conventions of meme culture. Firstly, the message that Trudeau was acting selfishly to secure a more advantageous governmental arrangement is conveyed through object labelling. This is a formal technique whereby objects in an image or video are recontextualized by the use of labels, placing them in a relation suggested by the spatial dynamics. Here, the video commences with Charlie, labelled as Canada, saying “here we go again!” Then, Trudeau as Veruca points at a golden goose labelled “majority” and says “I want one of those!” followed by his character tearing out a roll of cellophane wrap labelled “higher taxes,” upsetting bowls of candy labelled “balance the budget,” and driving a cart into a pile of boxes labelled “the economy.” Clearly, this is meant to present Trudeau as self-serving and greedy, at the expense of Canada’s economic stability.
The second important aspect of the video to meme culture is its apparent amateurishness, which nods at the significance of “internet ugly” (Douglas, 2014) to meme aesthetics, particularly in relation to early internet culture on sites like 4Chan (Phillips & Milner, 2021). This imbues the political message with an implicit audience, one savvy about the specificities of internet culture and open to ideological messaging through a seemingly informal medium.
Posted on Twitter by @CPC_HQ, the verified account of the Conservative Party of Canada, the video immediately sparked negative attention; some critics remarked that it undermined CPC leader Erin O’Toole’s credibility (Delacourt, 2021). The choice to circulate the video on Twitter is notable as the site is not known for its video culture, rather, it serves as a forum for political and media elites to share short text missives. In many ways the video would have been well suited for TikTok, the short-video sharing app known for its frenetic meme culture. However, it would perhaps not have reached the type of voter the Conservatives wished to court through a forum like Twitter.
Moreover, outside the decade-old Condescending Wonka image macro meme, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory seems an odd choice for the meme treatment. It is a largely beloved movie, but one without any particular bearing on contemporary popular culture. Whereas other popular children’s entertainment properties, such as Arthur and SpongeBob Squarepants, have emerged as popular sources for meme-able reaction images, Willy Wonka lacks the demographic specificity and visual versatility to resonate with meme consumers. Instead the edit seems forced and awkward, with the poor reception reflecting the failure of the attempt to use memes to appear authentic.
The video and its ensuing controversy demonstrate the rapid mainstreaming of video meme cultures (McKelvey et al., 2022). While the medium of video is nothing new for a political campaign, the choice to publish a video meme coincides with a larger shift in online culture, where audio-based memes with corresponding video components are increasingly popular (Kaye et al., 2021). This is due in no small part to the increasing adoption of TikTok, which reached over 1 billion monthly active users worldwide in 2021 (TikTok Team, 2021). Importantly, creative use of TikTok has seen positive reception when mobilized by the likes of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (Patel, 2021), a type of attention the CPC perhaps wished to court and, with it, younger voters.
The desire to appeal to consumers of culturally avant-garde or “dank” content online through explicitly political and partisan memes is not unprecedented. For example, in 2019 UK Tories used a slew of purposefully “bad” memes during their campaign to “get Brexit done” (Stokel-Walker, 2019). This increasing tendency to appeal to “the people” through amateurism as authenticity is expounded by Jessica Baldwin-Philippi as “the technological performance of populism” (2019). This performance of populism is empowered by what she refers to as populist affordances, which center “the people” through various techniques such as anti-professional content creation and participatory politics. Through these techniques, memes emerge as an ideal vehicle for political strategy since, when they are wielded correctly, “the parodic, playful tone of memes lightens the often negative and delegitimizing arguments made within political memes… enabling campaigns to criticize an opponent in a way that is different from “going negative” as is traditionally seen in attack ads” (Baldwin-Philippi, 2019, p. 389). Interestingly, while this approach was wrought with much success by the Trump presidential campaign in 2016, it would seem that with the Trudeau Tantrum meme, the CPC missed playful by a wide margin and landed squarely at immature and offensive.
Nonetheless, Veruca Salt’s partisan performance signals an attempt by the CPC to usher in new era of political shitposting in Canada. Firstly, the video was a clear attempt to troll the Liberal party, a necessary articulation of the antagonism between the nation’s two perpetual ruling parties. Secondly, the video allowed the CPC to address the grassroots through the mobilization of amateur aesthetics—something that was sorely needed in light of O’Toole’s metropolitan image, potentially at odds with the rural Conservative voting bloc. Simultaneously, it acted as a signal to far(ther)-right potential voters due to the familiarity of such aesthetics in extremist spaces online, which could prove useful in an election where the anti-vaccine, anti-immigration People’s Party of Canada promised to gain more traction than in 2019, possibly cutting into CPC support. Lastly, it seemed to signal a desire for virality at any cost. Regardless of whether people had positive or negative reactions to the meme, it garnered wide circulation and elicited much coverage in the press and on social media, making it effective insofar as it drew voters’ attention to the meme during the crucial days before the announcement of the writ drop.
This last point seems especially significant considering the video’s removal from Twitter was due to copyright infringement and not because it was deemed at odds with the party image. If not for the DMCA notice, would the video have remained up despite its offensive and immature tenor? The fact that another video more fitting with the CPC brand, published shortly after the takedown, reached a smaller audience while touting a similar message highlights the video’s viral value (Brown, 2021).
While this meme was far from the defining moment of the 44th federal election, its universal criticism signals the increasing importance of an agile and thoughtful digital strategy for political campaigning. While virality at all costs may appeal to the short-sighted campaigner, it is a poor substitute for meaningful attempts to bolster genuine support through policy and messaging that resonates with voters. Memes may be here to stay, but for now a cheap and parodic meme treatment of a beloved children’s movie remains unwelcome in the official arenas of the electoral campaign.
Alhmidi, M. (2021, August 17). Conservatives delete ‘Willy Wonka’ ad from Twitter after copyright complaint. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal-election/2021/08/17/conservatives-delete-willy-wonka-ad-from-twitter-after-copyright-complaint.html
Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2019). The technological performance of populism. New Media & Society, 21(2), 376–397. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444818797591
Brown, J. [@JesseBrown]. (2021, August 16). So this CPC ad makes the same basic point as the Willy Wonka ad but does so without the dumb misogyny, the childishness & the embarrassing, amateurish look. It documents Trudeau’s hypocrisy and ends with a simple statement of fact. I expect it will be seen by ~90% fewer people..[Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/JesseBrown/status/1427072963497631747
Delacourt, S. [@SusanDelacourt]. (2021, August 28). Watching @erinotoole denouncing in very strong terms what happened with @JustinTrudeau last night and his high-road campaign. So where does the Willy Wonka ad fit into that approach? Sorry, but has to be asked. #cdnpoli #elxn44[Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/SusanDelacourt/status/1431618469125099521
Douglas, N. (2014). It’s supposed to look like shit: The internet ugly aesthetic. Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3), 314–339. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470412914544516
Global News. (2021, August 15). ‘Willy Wonka’-themed Conservative ad featuring Trudeau comes under fire from some party members. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9MTvYdE4mM
Kaye, D. B. V., Rodriguez, A., Langton, K., & Wikström, P. (2021). You made this? I made this: Practices of authorship and (mis)attribution on TikTok. International Journal of Communication, 15, 3195–3215.
McKelvey, F., Lalancette, M., Kowalchuk, S., Fitzbay, S. (2022). Les mèmes politiques commes nouveau discours critique [Manuscript submitted for publication]. University of Québec Press.
Patel, R. (2021, July 5). Jagmeet Singh is a TikTok superstar. Here’s what that means for the next election. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2021/07/05/jagmeet-singh-is-a-tiktok-superstar-heres-what-that-means-for-the-next-election.html
Phillips, W., & Milner, R. M. (2021). You are here: A field guide for navigating polarized speech, conspiracy theories, and our polluted media landscape. MIT Press.
Stokel-Walker, C. (2019, October 23). “They’re doing this badly on purpose”: Why the Tories’ latest online ads look so ugly. New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2019/10/they-re-doing-badly-purpose-why-tories-latest-online-ads-look-so-ugly
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