I've been doing some thinking lately on messaging. How you need to have a simple message for it to resonate. How the complex issues governments at every level have to deal with can’t be distilled into sound bites. How so many of us don’t have time for the details. And what that means for political discourse.
Two recent developments triggered these thoughts for me: the election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto, and the evolving Liberal messaging on the F-35 and fighter jets.
Now, if you look past the soundbites to Ford’s platforms, there are serious issues. For example, the amount of spending he has in his sites is a fraction of the city budget. Big financial holes remain in his budget. The deeper, systemic issues facing the city go largely unaddressed.
The Conservatives have opted to distill it to a simple message: this is the best jet, we support the troops, anything else will cost jobs. The first is unproven, the second debatable and the third untrue, but it’s a simple, clear message.
Now, instead, the Liberals have opted for a simple, clear message: we will cancel the F-35 purchase. Now that’s a simple, clear, understandable message. They’re setting it up as a black and white choice that everyone can understand, and that they believe will resonate: fighter jets and prisons or schools and health care.
Of course, it’s not really that simple. There’s actually no F-35 purchase to cancel, because no purchase contract has signed. And a Liberal government would still purchase fighters, and possibly even the F-35. They’d just do it through a competitive tender process. And the feds don't build schools anyways.
But again, by and large people don’t have time to have that wider discussion, particularly if the government has no intent in engaging in it. So it seems the Liberals have decided, rather than cede the field to the government, it’s better to meet their simple but flawed message with our simple but flawed message.
There are hardly unique examples. Our political discourse is increasingly dominated by simplistic arguments and messaging that aren’t afraid of ignoring the facts to send a message. Look at the Green Shift. The right policy, but it was sold poorly – you needed a 10-minute conversation to understand why. The arguments against it – it’s a permanent tax on everything – fell apart under scrutiny, but in the absence of time for that scrutiny a simple, compelling argument wins.