Y’know, there should be some serious legislation mandating that elections be run by ad agencies. You’d think politicians and their handlers who do this sort of thing pretty much all the time, and plan campaigns years in advance, would come off less like amateurs in the communications game.
If only campaign ads were imbued with a little more creativity, people might actually care. The latest batch on all sides are pretty much the same as always so rather than offend any particular party I’ll just outline how they almost ALWAYS work (at least post-Mulroney, when everybody seems to forget what made these things memorable):
Are you attacking another party? If yes than show unflattering pictures of their leader and, depending on if the point of character in question is a ‘masculine’ trait (e.g. leadership) or a ‘feminine one (e.g. warmth, honesty) you get a male or female voiceover to quote the person out of context and perhaps with a little exaggeration. Then you mention what the besieged leader allegedly said about your attack point, basically owning up to the fact they’re ‘weak’ or ‘dishonest’ or ‘hellspawn’ or whatever. Don’t forget to mention the name of your party so people know which direction the mud’s being slung from!
Are you emphasizing how great your leader is? Show flattering pictures of the guy (or as flattering as you can find, ‘politics is show-business for ugly people’ after all), quote some figures, cut to stock footage of forests, prairies, lakes, maybe a clean city-scape and have him warmly say they approve the message.
Are you emphasizing how approachable/honest/trustworthy your leader is? Have him repeat some meaningless jargon, make sure you get his nose brown by telling Canadians how wonderful they are, show some leaves in the background and get him to take his jacket off.
Maybe you want to show off how awesome your platform is? Are you crazy? Since when have election campaigns been about honestly discussing which direction to take this country? The last time an election was about policy Ed Broadbent was NDP leader and we had a referendum! Better to obfuscate your platform so viewers automatically categorize election promises as ‘meaningless jargon’ in their heads and focus on how the leader seems approachable/honest/trustworthy.
Great advertising boils complex ideas down into a few memorable words and a striking visual mnemonic. It persuades, and it challenges our preconceived assumptions so that we see things from the client’s point of view. Bad advertising attempts to interrupt you at dinner, during your favorite programs, while you are reading, etc. with the same ridiculous message until your defences are beaten into submission and you do whatever they tell you. See the candidate enough times, political volunteers are told, and eventually you will be made to vote for him. If this were so, we’d all be buying from telemarketers rather than hanging up in their faces.
Good communication makes you FEEL something other than loathing for the communicator. Stating a promise isn’t enough, telling people what’s in it for them isn’t enough, showing you’re a trustworthy brand isn’t enough, there has to be something that makes them laugh or cry. Occasionally parties are handed scandals that rile people up, but that’s usually at the expense of the entire political profession. What we need is a better way to generate interest.
For a time, parties had a good grasp on TV, those old enough might remember the flag being yanked off its pole, or the country being physically divided up. If you’re American you’ll remember ‘Good Morning America’, the daisy-counting ad, and a host of others. But these days our TV ads look like they were either done in powerpoint or made for radio with the visual as an after-thought.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it’ll have to be up to the web 2.0 generation. NotALeader.ca, dedicated to portraying Stephane Dion as a weakling and a storybook failure (complete with fairy tale retelling of his tax raises) was a brilliant piece, and working for the other side I really wished we’d done something like that. So far Youtube ads have mostly mirrored other campaigns (like TBWA’s I’m a Mac/PC ads) or–shudder–real election ads.
I doubt parties in Canada will ever get Social Media the way Obama’s campaign for change did (Cannes Titanium for crying out loud! They put the rest of us to shame). And it remains to be seen whether Obama’s machine is an anomaly or just another of the man’s many ‘firsts’.
The challenge is to communicate your party’s message in a way that gets people’s attention. I now it’s hard to go for the new without losing your base, but as it stands Canada’s quickly becoming a bore-ocracy that believes issues are simply too too complex to be at all interesting. Worse, our politicians, by boring us into not caring about what they do, are violating an important agreement within democracy. Complacency and apathy is only partly the fault of the people, the rest lies in the extremely sad pickings to be had and the deceitful lullaby all sides have agreed to sing us on CPAC.