Recently, a number of Quebec commentators mused about the extensive use of social media before and during the current Quebec election campaign, with several calling it the province’s first election 2.0. In an op ed in yesterday’s L’Actualite.com,  Chantal Hebert waded into the discussion with a thoughtful piece   on the true value of social media in election campaigns, arguing that online discussions tend to be far removed from voters’ mainstreet concerns.

Hebert says that while there are good tactical reasons for using social media in election campaigns, it would be a mistake to assume that the conversations populating the various online platforms are the ones that resonate with ordinary voters.

The key problem is that  (in Quebec and in Canada) political parties have yet to embrace the social paradigm that actually drives engagement and digital sharing.  We can see it in the content that they generate. Complex issues are dumbed down to a few simple talking points. Individuals and personalities become (in some cases, literally) black and white cardboard cutouts.

This content is based on what Andrew Coyne calls “the totalitarian assumptions that inform most advertising, and its close cousin, politics” He adds, “in the world inhabited by this brand or that party, nothing bad ever happens, nothing ever goes wrong, no one ever is unhappy”.

It’s  what I call the Pleasantville school of advertising. Pleasantville was the 1998 indie film where two teenagers are transported into the black and white world of a 50’s sitcom.  And it’s a view of the world that still dominates Canadian politics.

A good example can be seen in negative ads (its not a coincidence that these are often in black and white). Once the exception, these have now become the staple of election campaigns.  More interesting though, is their use between elections where political parties traditionally do not engage in large media buys and rely on earned and social media.

A quick look at the YouTube channel of both the NDP and CPC shows that neither of their most recent negative ads went viral.  The NDP ad generated some 68,000 hits while the CPC anti-Mulcair ad generated a little over 30,000 views. And a large number of those were views not from social platforms, but from the online pages of mainstream media outlets.  Hardly game changing stuff.

This traditional advertising and political marketing paradigm is well-suited to large traditional media buys as ways to frame consumer perceptions, but not social engagement.  It works when you can buy eyeballs and multiple views. It fails miserably when your audience is your medium.


Because effective digital engagement requires content that is sharable. That means content that members of diverse online communities will feel comfortable sharing among their peers. It means content that is real.  Anything else misses the point.

Let’s look at one politician who got it.  We don’t have to go far, right here in Canada, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi went from long shot to mayor, largely thanks to smart, funny and personal social-media engagement.

Three things distinguished his use of social media from that of our federal parties in the last  election: content, tone and genuine engagement. Mr. Nenshi was able to use social media to engage with a growing audience because, from day one, his message was positive, fresh and, most important, sharable. His commitment to dialogue built political capital and most importantly, trust. And while municipal elections don’t have the partisan trapping of their federal or provincial cousins, Nemshi succeeded by avoiding shrill personal attacks and focusing instead on positive and optimistic messaging. Ultimately, his approach translated into boots on the ground, contributions to the campaign and votes.

In the last federal election, social media was used largely as a one-way bulletin board and echo chamber for partisan talking points and videos. Absent, for the most part, was any genuine engagement or content with broad non-partisan appeal.

Unfortunately, what we see in Quebec and in the rest-of-Canada today suggests that parties will continue to use social media as a tactical tool to energize their base, raise funds and generate traditional media coverage. And so doing they will fail to capitalize on its true transformative potential: Its capacity to amplify messages a million-fold and to mobilize thousands.

But capitalizing on that potential would require acknowledging the world is not black and white and the bad guys can sometimes be good guys. It would mean saying goodbye to Pleasantville.

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