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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 12 November 2012

Campaign Narratives: The Art of Political Shading

That's the single most important lesson people engaging on political campaigns can learn.
Of course, that's easier said than done.  How do you create an image that resonates in the minds of the general public?  Political operatives have been developing this craft of political branding for centuries, yet it remains more art than science.  Smart folk like Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff have tried to articulate their brand in logical, academic terms - and fallen far short of success.  Same with Mitt Romney - he thought that his track record of tough success in business spoke for itself and therefore spent the first chunk of the just-finished Presidential campaign simply speaking to that record. 
This bold-strokes message won Romney the first Presidential debate; it also proved to be his ultimate downfall.  What he and perhaps his campaign team didn't realize - or rather, didn't think mattered - was the way his messaging coloured in the brand outline they had established. Romney could not be other than he was; the more he spoke, the more public traction he gained, the clearer it became to the average American that he wasn't one of them.  His essence was painted with the rich primary colours of old-America elitism. 
For his part, Obama's initial falter was not due to his words, but his image.  President Obama at the beginning of the campaign was just that - a President wrapped up in the busy-ness of office, running for reelection.  His messaging had the wonkish, sharp lines of academia and created an image inaccessible to the average American.  It was when he refound his 2008 palette featuring the warmer hues of hope, promise and commonality that he once again registered with the electorate.
That's the key; we can talk about the science of politics all we want, but politics is meant to be art.  One of the tricks you learn in crafting art is that defining a pictorial narrative or a portrait isn't always about bold lines that force an impression upon your audience, but rather a more subtle, strategic manipulation of light and shadows to build an image in their mind's eye.  You don't build the picture for them - you control the context they see and allow them to construct your image themselves.
That's the Philosopher's Stone of political branding, the key lesson that opens the doors to success; sophisticated narrative building isn't just about simple, blunt lines and volume, but about shading in prescribed context that allows your candidate to shine through.
Stephen Harper, knowing that his personality is all sharp-edged policy with the odd splash of angry reds and cold blues wisely stays out of the public spotlight.  His tenure as Prime Minister has been more about defining others than defining himself.  Team Harper has relied on shadows to create their narrative and portray their opposition; troubles lapping at shores, not in it for you, etc.  This approach has worked so far because none of Harper's opponents has successfully created their own palette.  As mentioned before, previous competitors used lines and ran campaigns devoid of texture; Thomas Mulcair has so far drawn from the same dark shading that has defined the Harper narrative.
Which creates an amazing opportunity for the next Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.  With shadows the texture of choice on the Canadian political scene, there is an incredible need for contrast.  Great artists have realized that the use of light can be far more powerful tool in defining a narrative that resonates with a diverse public.  Light can block out blemishes, provide clarity, builds horizons and supports broad visions.  Best of all, light will always dominate over darkness; it's political physics.

There are now two accomplished artists involved in the race for the Leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party - it will be telling what hues they choose to use to define their narratives for the people.
UPDATE: It should come as no surprise that the OLP Leadership candidate that won did so based on her merits; Kathleen Wynne has filled in the texture of her entire career with integrity, thoughtfulness, strategic thinking and no small dose of empathy.

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