Super Bowl viewers in Canada had never seen anything quite like it. The annual American football classic is one of the highest-rated programs on the TV calendar and, therefore, one of the year’s most expensive ad buys. But on February 4, 2007, as football fans across the country settled in to watch the Indianapolis Colts take on the Chicago Bears, they were greeted with something other than the usual stylish collection of ads for beer, cellphones, computers, and soft drinks.
For the first time ever, their football escapism was jolted by an intrusion of reality: a political advertisement. The ad featured a clip from one of the all-candidates debates held during the recently completed Liberal leadership campaign. Stéphane Dion was being challenged by his opponent Michael Ignatieff over the Liberal record on the environment. “Stéphane, we didn’t get it done,” Ignatieff proclaimed, “we didn’t get it done.” “This is unfair,” Dion complained. “Do you think it’s easy to set priorities?” The camera cut to a shot of Ignatieff laughing at Dion’s answer. A voice was then heard intoning: “Leaders set priorities. Leaders get things done. Stéphane Dion is not a leader.” Then, at a slightly lower volume and with a faster-paced read, viewers heard: “This message brought to you by the Conservative Party of Canada.”
No Canadian political party had ever produced advertising to run during the Super Bowl. But what was more remarkable about this ad was that there wasn’t even an election under way at the time. Dion had only been chosen Liberal leader two months earlier, and though an election is always a possibility in a minority Parliament, few people expected him to want to defeat the government and take his chances with the electorate anytime soon.
So what was going on? Why would the Conservatives spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack the Liberal leader when an election was not on the horizon? To understand the answer to that question, you have to understand the art and science of political framing. Few people outside the world of political spin-doctoring have heard about framing in its political context, but it is critically important in determining which issues will gain traction with the electorate and which politicians will emerge triumphant on election day. And the Conservative party’s efforts to frame Stéphane Dion as “not a leader”, which began on that Super Bowl Sunday in 2007, will long be remembered as a textbook example of successful framing.
The man who is perhaps most responsible for bringing the idea of framing into the political realm is George Lakoff. Until 2004, he was an obscure but highly respected linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Then he wrote a book, called Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—The Essential Guide for Progressives, that became a bible for political consultants on both sides of the partisan divide.
The book’s title lies at the core of Lakoff’s theory of framing. If he were to ask you to not think of an elephant, you wouldn’t be able to do it, because in order to not think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. In Lakoff’s view, our brains are hard-wired to think in terms of frames. Our frame for an elephant is a large mammal with a trunk, floppy ears, and large stubby legs. We have no way of thinking about an elephant that doesn’t involve us evoking that image.
Lakoff goes on to write about how conservatives in the U.S. have been much more successful at framing their issues than liberals. He cites the example of taxes. When conservatives talk about tax cuts, they will use the phrase “tax relief”, because the word relief evokes a frame in which a blameless person has been harmed by some external factor. That harm needs to be relieved, and when that happens, the people responsible for making the pain go away are hailed as conquering heroes. The successful use of the “relief” frame in the tax-cutting debate is one of the big reasons why it has been so hard for opponents to argue against it.
Once a frame has been established, it becomes very difficult to change it. “Frame development,” Lakoff has written, “takes time and work.” And that’s why it is so important to be the first to get your frame established. “Frame yourself,” the political spin-doctors like to say, “or others will establish the frame for you.”
Which is precisely what was happening in that Conservative party Super Bowl ad. When Dion won the Liberal leadership in December 2006, he was as frameless a political leader as Canadians had seen in a long time. Most Canadians had no idea who he was. He won the convention largely because his two main opponents, Ignatieff and Bob Rae, had some negative frames of their own that they could not overcome. The frame that Rae had been carrying around like a millstone was that he had been an incompetent premier of Ontario. Ignatieff was seen as a Bush-loving hawk. Dion was a tweedy academic who seemed to care a lot about the environment, but beyond that, there was little to say about him.
This made for fertile ground if you were a Conservative party strategist. They saw a small window of opportunity to hang an unflattering frame around Dion’s neck. To do that, they first had to diminish Dion’s credibility on the environment, an issue where Dion seemed more attuned to Canadian public opinion than Stephen Harper. And for that, the Conservatives turned to the Republican party playbook written by George W. Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove.
The conventional wisdom in politics has always been that you play to your candidate’s strengths and try not to call attention to those areas where your opponent might be holding the upper hand. But Rove had a different idea. Instead of attacking his opponent at his weakest point, Rove attacked where he was strongest. The 2004 presidential campaign pitted John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war hero, against Bush, a man who never saw combat and who was largely a no-show during his stint with the Texas Air National Guard.
Most political strategists would have avoided calling attention to Kerry’s war record, because it would invite unflattering comparisons to Bush. But Rove, using front groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was able to raise questions about the veracity of Kerry’s accomplishments in Vietnam. The accusations were mostly bogus, but simply by raising them, Rove succeeded in shifting the focus of attention away from Bush’s military-service record and onto Kerry’s, thereby neutralizing any advantage the Massachusetts senator had on that issue. Kerry spent the last month of the 2004 campaign trying to prove he really was a war hero. Nobody was talking about Bush’s military record. Mission accomplished.
And shifting attention is precisely what the Conservatives had to do with Dion and the environment. He had been ahead of the curve on climate change, while Harper had long expressed doubts about whether the issue was even real. But rather than let Dion own the environment issue, to frame himself as an environmental hero, the Conservatives sought to take the issue away from him, to put him on the defensive, by attacking his record on greenhouse gases while he was a member of the Liberal cabinet. On this important issue, he would be the man who “didn’t get it done”. He would have to spend precious media time defending his record on the issue, leaving Harper’s decade-long litany of climate-change denial largely ignored.
And that dovetailed nicely with the second objective of the Super Bowl ad: to frame Dion as a weak leader, to make sure that—as surely as we can’t not think of an elephant without thinking of an elephant—we would never be able to think of the Liberal leader without thinking of his pathetic whine about how hard it is to set priorities. Contrast that to Harper, who, during the 2006 campaign, talked about his “five priorities” and practically nothing else, and the appeal of the leadership frame is easy to understand.
And once established, political frames are notoriously difficult to shake. It took Joe Clark decades of meritorious public service before he could successfully lose the “Joe Who?” frame pinned on him by a newspaper headline the day after he seemed to come from nowhere to win the Conservative party leadership in 1976. Jean Chrétien remained “the little guy from Shawinigan” long after he had left his small-town roots behind. And Paul Martin could never escape the damning “Mr. Dithers” frame hung on him by a writer from the Economist and eagerly adopted by his opponents in Parliament and the press.
Scott Reid, who was Martin’s communications director, worked hard to reverse the Mr. Dithers frame but with limited success. “Once that frame, that sort of truism, becomes established,” Reid argued during a CBC/Radio-Canada interview, “people funnel their news stories into that and that becomes a kind of a decoder ring for people to tell many other aspects of what is going on in Ottawa.”
But even Reid acknowledged that there has to be some substance to the frame in order for it to stick. “No frame is going to be set that is at 100-percent variance to the truth,” he told the CBC. “I mean, there are events, there are characteristics, that trigger a frame,” said Reid, who admitted that Martin’s policy reversal on the issue of Canadian support for the U.S. missile shield helped seal the deal on Mr. Dithers. “They may not be wholly definitional in truth, but they become in large part definitional in terms of media coverage and popular understanding. But that’s life in the big city. They don’t come from nowhere.”
But the “not a leader” frame that the Conservatives hung on Dion on Super Bowl Sunday 15 months ago did largely “come from nowhere”. He had, after all, been the party leader for less than 60 days, hardly enough time to establish his leadership bona fides. And that frame might have disappeared by now if only Dion had been able to successfully counteract it by displaying tough, determined leadership as leader of the Opposition. Instead, he has spent much of the past year reinforcing the frame: huffing and puffing about how Conservative policies are ruining the country, and then meekly standing up in the Commons to vote in favour of those same policies in order to avoid an election. The Conservatives took a gamble on Dion, and it has paid off handsomely.
And that’s one of the main reasons why Liberal party strategists are walking the streets of Ottawa so glumly these days. They know they have lost the battle of the frames. Their initial strategy was to try to counteract Harper’s “decisive leader” frame by describing him as a “bully” as often as they could. And although there is much evidence to suggest there is considerable truth to that characterization, it hasn’t really stuck.
And even though the prime minister has shifted his policies on many significant issues (how about those income trusts?), and his government is hardly the bastion of openness and accountability that he boasted it would be, he is still considered by most Canadians as a man who says what he means and means what he says.
Lakoff, the father of framing, has written that “the truth alone will not set you free. It has to be framed correctly.” The problem, Lakoff concedes, is that “reframing requires a rewiring of the brain,” and that requires “an investment of time, effort, and money”. The challenge for Liberals trying to shake the frame the Conservatives have hung on Stéphane Dion is that they have a shortage of both time and money.
More significantly, no amount of reframing can alter what is fundamentally true. The next election will be fought largely around the leadership frame, and that’s a battle the Liberals are destined to lose. And it all began on Super Bowl Sunday.