SUCCESs amidst the BLUR: How this Election Campaign is so different from before

Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of the election in Canada, and witnessed two Leader’s debates, I find that there has been much said to woo Canadians to vote one way or another.  It’s been interesting to see the differing styles and content from all five Leaders and how each of them has aimed at either a particular audience or segment of the populace to maximize votes.

More interestingly, it’s been remarkable how this election campaign has differed significantly from any other we’ve had in Canada.  The tried and true stumping of the candidates and leaders is now riddled with explanations, apologies and condemnations of fellow party members.  Even in the debates, accusations were either truthful, dismissing any opportunity for rebuttal (although not deflection) or were all encompassing, suggesting that even the accuser is not innocent.  Candidates have been dropped, leaks and other mysterious information have been debunked or even dismissed and the concept of the ‘winning punch’ appears to be no longer possible.

I have been curious as to why there has been such a change in this campaign and have taken an approach that reflects my scientific background and interest not in the spin, but the reasons behind it.

There are two books that are currently in circulation: “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath and “Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.  Both these sources have been very helpful in not only understanding the spin that until recently has been so successful for politicians, but also how the media and Canadians have been able to move past the spin and seek the truth (or the closest thing they can get to it without significant redaction).

The Keys to SUCCESs


Both books provide a fundamental model to their thesis.  In “Made To Stick,” which focuses on developing a message that will be not only heard but kept, the model is referred to as SUCCESs (referring to Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories).  In this case, a message has to be clear, succinct, approachable and to some extent surprising in order to gain an audience’s attention.  In campaigns of the past, these kinds of messages would be rampant.  An example would be a large promise of money or tax breaks that would be brought in either the first day (or within the first 100 days) of taking over the government.  The SUCCESs model could also be used in attack strategies, where a rumour or even a document shrouded in secrecy would be made public that shamed a member of an opposing party.  The documents would be accompanied by a message blasting the perpetrators and demanding that they never be given a chance for election or power.  In a debate, the sudden introduction of a new key message or a blinding attack on an opposer’s faults would be critical to winning a debate and potentially riding the wave to victory.
Apparently, however, in this campaign, while these strategies have been tried, few have even come close to succeeding.

It’s all due to what is best called…

Skeptical Knowing

This phenomenon is the basis of “Blur.”  In a day and age where information is continuous and the time available for assessment and analysis is perpetually eroding, the onus is on the audience to determine what they should and should not believe.  While the book focuses on journalism in particular, the fundamentals are applicable to anyone.

Skeptical knowing requires that an individual look at the five W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why) and the one H (How) to assess the validity and credibility of any statement.  This is a natural process in scientific research and other academic fields.  However, for the average viewer who is bombarded with several dozen stories an hour, complete with minimal efforts at debates with pundits and so-called experts, the task can be near impossible.  Yet, in this world of social media, no one person is ever truly alone.  With the click of a button, one has access to a plethora of options for analysis, debate and decision-making.  Granted, the sheer amount of information in social media may also be detrimental to the development of a decision yet the presence of more useful information allows for proper processing and a better overall outcome.

SUCCESs vs. Skeptical Knowing

Taking two specific instances in particular demonstrate the ability of SUCCESs and how skeptical knowing can just as quickly confirm or debunk the message.

The debate can be seen on CBC and I’ll point out the moments that refer to my discussion below.

In the English debate, Gilles Duceppe (at 1h 54m) accused all parties of wanting to take money from the employment-insurance fund for other purposes.  Not a single leader attempted to quell or quash the accusation nor did the media or any other individual.  In fact it was so quiet that the moderator moved right on.  Stephen Harper did have a response the next evening when the same allegation was made, but it did little to take away from the message to Duceppe’s target demographic, the people of Quebec, that they were being robbed.  It held so tight that it was Duceppe’s main message after the debates in which he brought up the now popular “Canada Coalition”.

In contrast, when Jack Layton accused Michael Ignatieff of high absenteeism in Parliament (at 59m), he was taken to task for his allegation.  The media went to work on fact checking, social media went abuzz with curiosity and the Liberal party went straight into asking (and answering) the five W’s and one H concerning the absences.  Within the hour, different numbers were being offered and credible (and likable) explanations were being proffered and spread.  Before long, the accusation, which may have been a killer in a previous campaign, simply went away.

Is This The Future of Politics?

There is no question that this election campaign is different from any other Canada has ever seen.  I have to admit that both “Made To Stick” and “Blur” have been a significant help in understanding why this difference exists and also in assessing and analyzing the various strategies employed by the parties.  I’ve been impressed that in many cases, the same old ways just do not work and I’m even more excited that at least some of the candidates have been looking at multiple sources to share their message.  But perhaps what makes this election campaign all the more interesting to me is that for the first time ever, the public has the ability to control the message that comes from politicians through an understanding of SUCCESs and through the process of skeptical knowing.

Now let’s hope that continues after May 2nd.

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  • Jason Tetro

    Jason A. Tetro has been in the scientific community for nearly 25 years. He has worked on diagnostic technologies and has expertise in the food, water and bloodborne fields. He is currently Coordinator for the Emerging Pathogen Research Centre (EPRC) and the Centre for Research on Environmental Microbiology (CREM) both housed at the University of Ottawa. Here, he works to develop novel methods to identify and mitigate infectious disease risks. Jason is also known as the “Germ Guy” where he promotes health and hygiene in the public. He is internationally recognized as an expert in germs, their spread and how to prevent illness.