Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tweaking the message

There's been lots of talk about - and praise for - the NDP's new ads over the past couple of days. And I agree with the apparent consensus that the ads are not only a plus for the NDP, but also a step in the right direction for Canada's political scene generally in their focus on policy possibilities rather than personalities.

That said, I'll take a moment to quibble briefly with one of the parts of the message which has been earned particular praise from some corners - namely, the "prosperity gap" theme which has surfaced recently.

The problem isn't with the principles behind the message, but rather with the words chosen to express those principles. While the wording within the ad itself avoids any major difficulty, consider this phrase from Jack Layton's recent speech on health care:
And as it has done since 1947, Medicare will serve as an effective way to reduce the prosperity gap and to make life more fair, affordable and healthy for working families and the middle class.
Read as a whole, there's nothing in the phrase which most people would disagree with. But what happens if the words are taken out of context, or even if they stay in a listener's subconscious for future reference while their full origin is lost?

Keep in mind that the main attack on the NDP from both the Libs and Cons is that the NDP doesn't understand or value economic growth. (And put aside the sheer lunacy of that position.)

Based on the NDP's current phrasing, Dion and Harper can take forward the message that the NDP will "reduce prosperity" - and the NDP's own words will make that resonate as something contained within what Layton has actually said. And it can only get worse as Layton's message gets stronger over the course of a campaign, with "fighting the prosperity gap" being converted to a "fighting prosperity" scare tactic.

Not that this is based on anything approaching a fair interpretation of the NDP's message. But surely we should know better than to expect anything even faintly approaching fairness out of the Libs and Cons. And accordingly, some thought has to be put into developing a message that both maximizes the positive reaction from likely NDP voters, and minimizes the distortions available to other parties.

Meanwhile, "gap" itself as a term requires some explanation and ideology to have any meaning. For anybody who doesn't see inequality of condition as a problem, the word will carry no weight at all. And even for somebody who might be sympathetic to the message, the NDP will have to explain what it refers to, since the concept of a "gap" itself might not seem like such a problem without Layton's analysis of what it means.

Once again, the problem may be a subtle one. But the combined effect of allowing other parties' criticisms to resonate more strongly and forcing the NDP to spend more time explaining the underpinnings of its own position could well be the difference between holding the balance of power or not if the current configuration remains roughly the same - or overtaking the Libs or not if the ad campaign otherwise works as well as could possibly be imagined.

So what should the NDP look to do if it's not too late? Consider to one of the more quickly adopted phrases from the past couple of elections, "fiscal imbalance", for an example. Here, "fiscal" is effectively a neutral term, while "imbalance" carries nothing but a stark negative connotation. As a result, a message that a party is fighting against the fiscal imbalance won't likely evoke a negative reaction - even from somebody who hears or repeats only selective parts of the phrase (whether by accident or in order to distort the message).

It shouldn't be that difficult to come up with a similar phrase to address Canada's continued inequality issues. And indeed the "imbalance" term itself might be a useful part of any message given its regular presence in recent political discussions.

Again, the problem is one of wording rather than substance. There's every reason for the NDP to focus on inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity in general as a main theme, and the presentation of concrete policies to deal with those priorities can only help to improve the party's standing. But while the current wording may be well targeted toward rallying the NDP's base and winning a strong share of the populist vote, it also leaves more opportunity for distortion than it needs to. And I'd hate to see the NDP lose out electorally as a result.

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