Debate brews over attitudes about Canada

Patriotism: Molson's `Rant' commercial takes a tongue-in-cheek shot at common misconceptions Americans have about their northern neighbor.

April 21, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

In his four years working in Philadelphia, Brett Marchand learned plenty about being a misunderstood Canadian.

Marchand's friends would ask if Ontario was a state or a city. His colleagues at Campbell's Soup Co., where Marchand worked in marketing, snickered when he said "past-a" instead of "pawsta." Once, during a meeting where an Australian was delivering a speech sprinkled with war metaphors, the company's former CEO turned to Marchand and remarked that an Aussie talking about war was about as absurd as hearing about it from a Canadian.

"He literally did not know that Canada was in World War I and World War II, and this was a guy with a master's degree," says Marchand, now the vice president of marketing for the Molson Canadian brewing company.

Americans' dearth of knowledge about their northern neighbors is nothing new. U.S. history is commonly taught in Canadian schools, but despite the two countries being each other's closest neighbors and biggest trade partners, American students learn next to nothing about Canada.

That fact was aptly illustrated when a Canadian comic tricked presidential candidate George W. Bush into expressing his appreciation for an endorsement from Prime Minister Jean Poutine, a gaffe that sent the Canadian media into gleeful fits. (Note to the uninformed: poutine is a French-Canadian artery-clogger made of french fries, cheese curds and gravy; the prime minister's name is Jean Chretien.)

Now there's something new to chuckle about: a Molson Canadian beer commercial that Marchand says has spurred an unexpected level of feedback on both sides of the border.

Dubbed "The Rant," the television spot debuted on Oscar night last month. It features a regular joe named Joe extolling the benefits of his country while taking a tongue-in-cheek shot at misconceptions about Canada.

Wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, Joe explains he's not a lumberjack or fur trader and doesn't live in an igloo or eat blubber. He has a prime minister, not a president. He speaks English and French, not American, and says about, not aboot.

Getting louder and increasingly animated, Joe declares the beaver "a truly proud and noble animal" and explains that a toque is a hat and a chesterfield is a couch.

His voice rising to a feverish pitch, he concludes: "Canada is the second-largest land mass, the first nation in hockey and the best part of North America. My name is Joe, and I ... AM ... CANADIAN!"

Marchand says he knew the ad was good but didn't anticipate the flood of reaction that's ensued. There was a great deal of positive response from U.S. viewers, he says, but in Canada the ad's popularity has exploded.

"You couldn't imagine the phenomenon it is in Canada," he says during an interview from his Toronto office. "It's been on the front page of newspapers. There are radio talk shows across the country dedicated to the ad. I've been doing interviews almost from first thing in the morning until the end of the day every day.

"There are people calling who are doing their theses on nationalism wanting to talk to me about the maturity of Canadian nationalism -- from a beer ad," he says incredulously.

Marchand was surprised not only by the media attention the ad received but also by the breadth of its appeal. The company targets twenty-something beer drinkers but has been receiving calls about the ad from people into their 60s, he says.

"It really has struck a chord with a huge group of consumers," Marchand says.

The idea for the ad originated from research conducted last fall, when its creators, a Toronto agency, talked to young beer drinkers and encountered the sort of patriotism more typically associated with Americans.

"I think there's this feeling amongst younger Canadians that this really is the greatest place in the world to live," he says.

Marchand points to the Internet, international travel and the North American Free Trade Agreement as factors that have increased cross-border connections, making Canadians more aware of what their country has to offer. The success of famous Canadians such as director James Cameron, country diva Shania Twain and comedian Mike Myers also promotes a sense of national pride, he says.

Donald Alper, a professor at Western Washington University, offers a different perspective. Alper says U.S.-Canadian corporate mergers, talk of a North American common currency and increased globalization have created a collective anxiety about Canada being swallowed up by its larger neighbor.

"All these things are seen as further eroding this Canadian identity," says Alper, president of the Washington D.C.-based Association for Canadian Studies in the United States.

It's an identity that Canadians may hold fast to, but one that remains an enigma south of the border.

Alper mentions a Western Washington summer program for teachers who want to include Canada in their curriculum. Most are from the Pacific Northwest, he says, and most know virtually zero about Canada.

"I would say, listening to this group of teachers, who are educated people, that the misconceptions are pretty close to being accurate," he says. "And the farther you get away from the border, the worse they get."

Molson's successful ad, which can be viewed online at www.ad critic.com, may not make any great strides in cultural understanding, but if nothing else, it provides an entertaining venue to illustrate what it means to be Canadian.

And hey, maybe that's aboot the most you can hope for, eh?

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