“Taking Back What?” An Analysis of Erin O’Toole’s Campaign Messaging
Before I begin, I want to address something.
This is new for me.
Typically I write on subjects such as self-improvement, life, and advice for becoming a better communicator. However, one of my passions is “messaging”: how the words we use, the mediums we leverage, and the ideas we have integrate into a wider picture of influence and persuasion. An analysis like this is the by-product of many hours of thought and reflection.
I keep my political leanings private when possible, and I want to stress that my goal with this blog post is to educate you on the rationale and strategy behind communication. I am not trying to criticize O’Toole’s campaign strategy: merely clarify the “why” behind each action. I will do my best to be unbiased and clear in my words. It is my hope that by understanding what each message is, regardless of political affiliation, you can be a more informed voter and citizen.
Fair warning: what you’re going to be exposed to is messaging that seeks to influence you (since that’s the point of it). Keep that in mind as you read this (the same goes for reading any political messaging, be it Liberal, NDP, Green, Democrat, Republican, Labour, etc).
Also, I haven’t cited a paper in almost 2 years, so I may screw up my citations. Bear with me.
Let’s jump into it.
“Let’s take back Canada!”
This message has dominated the messaging of Canadian Member of Parliament (MP) Erin O’Toole’s campaign since it picked up steam. O’Toole is the political representative for Durham, a small town in Ontario, Canada. He’s a member of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), and a current candidate for Conservative Party Leader.
O’Toole is an entrenched political figure: serving Durham as an MP since 2012, he has held the positions of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Shadow Minister on Foreign Affairs throughout his 8+ years in Parliament.
Launching his leadership bid isn’t surprising in any way. Given his time with the Conservatives, his high-profile with previous appointments, and relatively safe position in his own riding (he won by a margin of almost 10% in the 2019 election), O’Toole has a good amount of political experience and public awareness to make a bid for the party leadership.
As with any campaign, messaging is integral to whip up support. O’Toole’s approach is the most forward out of the rest: his messaging is blunt, direct, and demanding.
The slogan “Take Back Canada” is the foundation of his entire bid. His social media is permeated by this idea. His platform leans heavily on it. So what’s he trying to communicate? Who are we “taking back Canada” from? Why is he using this language?
The Power Of Framing
The deceptiveness of O’Toole’s slogan is in its simplicity. In three words, O’Toole has managed to lay the foundation of his entire leadership bid, creating a platform for his policy proposals, digital media content, and approach to governance. But this slogan is more than just a catchy sentence. It’s a frame.
We can start by defining a frame through the work of Professor George Lakoff, a cognitive linguistics professor from the University of California, Berkeley. In his book Don’t Think Of An Elephant, he defines frames as “mental structures that shape the way we see the world” (Lakoff, 2014). Framing influences the goals we seek, plans we make, our beliefs of good and bad, and who we vote for. According to Lakoff, frames are activated heavily through language. They’re a bridge between one’s values and actions, as they set the context for how one thinks, and by extension acts.
The power of a frame is in its simplicity. The shorter the message, the more powerful the frame. Launching into extensive and complicated explanations on any subject is a surefire way to not influence or persuade anyone, much less get them to even understand you. Framing allows you to shortcut the message.
O’Toole’s slogan is an example of a frame. It fits the criteria: short sentence (three words), flexible so it can be applied in various contexts while still making the same point (EG: taking back, back on track, back to work, etc.), and structures how you understand the issues at hand.
By defining O’Toole’s campaign slogan and accompanying message through framing, we can get a better understanding of what his strategy is: to set the context for how we look at him, his policies, and foreshadow what he would do as potential party leader and Prime Minister. All in three words.
Now that we understand how framing works, we can further our understanding by analyzing the language used in the frame. How does a slogan like this come to be?
To better understand the guidelines behind word selection, we can take a look at Frank Luntz’s book Words That Work. Specifically, I want to use the lessons from his chapter Ten Rules Of Effective Language (Luntz, 2007):
- Simplicity. Use Small Words.
- Brevity. Use short sentences.
- Consistency. Repetition drives home the point.
- Speak Aspirationally. Your language needs to connect with people.
Luntz’s “rules” are a set of principles that help us wield words to communicate an idea. By utilizing these, in Luntz’s opinion, one can become a much sharper communicator and leave a more lasting impression on the listener’s mind.
Now I doubt that Words That Work played a role in the development of O’Toole’s campaign messaging, but the rules can help us understand the rationale behind how the message may have been created. To test this, let’s run “Take Back Canada” through the above:
Consistent? A majority of his messaging revolves around this, so check.
Aspirationally? Less clear, but he still calls on Canadians to act in some capacity: so, check.
Utilizing these rules helps O’Toole shape the narrative into something simple, easy to understand, and emotional.
Extending from this, after reading the slogan a question naturally surfaces in our mind:
“Who are we taking Canada back from?”
That’s the goal. O’Toole has been waiting for you to ask that. And he has the answers ready: China, Liberals, or the United Nations.
Language is integral to the development of effective slogans and messages. Luntz’s work gives us a set of guidelines to filter the words we use by simplicity, shortness, frequency, and aspiration. “Take Back Canada” fits these four guidelines, thus creating a strong message that can resonate with listeners.
The Role Of Personality In Media
Taking a slight detour from language, I want to highlight how the slogan and accompanying messaging reflects the type of politician O’Toole is attempting to portray himself as. In politics, personality plays a massive role in the forming of public opinion. “What type of political figure are you?” is the question many politicians ask themselves at some point. Their actions, ranging from policy stances to debate performances to what they post on their social media, are the answers to this question.
So what kind of image is O’Toole attempting to portray?
In Stamatis Poulakidakos and Iliana Giannouli’s essay Greek Political Leaders on Instagram, they define personality in two categories: hard personalization, or the outer traits of an individual like their family and hobbies; and soft personalization, like their personality traits and how they conduct themselves (Poulakidakos & Giannouli, 2019).
O’Toole has a wide variety of posts on his social media channels, but they revolve around similar themes: straight talk, pride in work, or strength. His “soft” image is one of honesty, hard work, and reliability. His “hard” image is seen through his actions and history, such as his time in the military and his heavy-handed approach to leadership (examples being his language on having a backbone, disdain for “weakness and apathy” and his “tough on crime” stance).
He frames other political figures as soft, corrupt, and untrustworthy. By defining rivals in his own terms, he can contrast those images with his own: if you choose them you get weak leadership, if you choose him you get strong leadership.
Tying this back to his slogan, “Take Back Canada” is an extension of his personality: one based in strength and pride.
Loss-Aversion’s Affect On Decision-Making
It should be noted that this language of “taking back” isn’t anything new to the world. We don’t need to go far back in time to see this language used to support a cause: in fact, we only need to go back a few years. Five, to be exact.
It’s 2015, and Dominic Cummings helps start the Vote Leave campaign to convince Britons they should vote to leave the European Union (EU). The campaign utilized many methods, the most notable being the “big red bus” that toured across the country with MPs in favour of breaking ties with the EU. While this was an effective strategy for the campaign, it was the slogan on the bus that is important to note. Can you guess what that slogan was?
Yep, you guessed it.
Let’s Take Back Control.
This slogan drove the Vote Leave campaign by positioning how one voted an issue of ownership and independence. The campaign defined choices in black-and-white terms: to stay meant continuing to give away a part of the country to the EU and to leave meant regaining independence. We may disagree with those stances and their meanings, but Vote Leave framed the choices as such.
It indirectly tapped into several characteristics of human psychology: the desire to maintain the status quo and loss-aversion. While we talk like we want to change and are risk-takers, our behaviour typically spells otherwise.
In The Catalyst, Professor Jonah Berger proposes a concept called the “Endowment Effect” which is the tendency for us to value what we’ve gained or already have, including an avoidance for losing what we already have (Berger, 2020). The theory behind the effect is that losing something we had is painful, so humans have a tendency to try and get it back. Through his research, Berger uncovered several methods of how behaviour is influenced when it comes to this effect. One of the approaches is to leverage the need for status quo and ownership by communicating a decision that leads to such. Through an analysis of the Vote Leave campaign, Professor Berger explains how the slogan affected voters:
“ “Back” triggered loss aversion. It made it seem like something had been lost and leaving the EU was a way to regain that… With “let’s take back control” Cummings reframed the entire debate… Leaving wasn’t risky, it was simply a way of righting the ship. Returning things to how they were.” (Berger, 2020).
“Take back control” was a signal to voters: this was their opportunity to regain some form of dignity, respect, and individualism that has been slowly seeping away through the EU partnership. To get their country back.
(Once again I stress that you may personally disagree with this: but this is what the campaign believed, and this is how they communicated it.)
(Also: can you name another time someone demanded returning a country to an ideal time in history?)
You can find the similarities between O’Toole’s campaign and “Vote Leave” fairly easily. Both use the frame “taking back”: for Vote Leave, it’s about control. For O’Toole, it’s about country ownership. In either case, the messaging is trying to make you believe you’ve lost something, but through them, you can regain it.
O’Toole’s slogan “Take Back Canada” can be found in almost every corner of his platform. It directs his stance on China; his opinion on Quebec’s relationship with Canada; his foreign policy stance (like withholding funding from the UN and demanding reform); his social media messaging; and (most likely, as I have yet to meet a volunteer of his) any of his door-to-door canvassing.
The slogan is integral to his entire communications strategy. It sets a frame to communicate his belief: that Canada is lost and needs to be won back. It taps into methods of word selection to cut through the clutter and get to the heart of his stance. It serves as an avenue to highlight his personality. And by taking a page out of a popular conservative campaign, it leverages human psychology and the need to be in control to further drive home his message.
So, what are we taking back? If we look at his platform and the analysis of the language used through the four methods above, O’Toole’s answer is simple: we need to take back our ownership. Our responsibility for our country. Our independence.
And, according to O’Toole, the only way to do that is through him. And the only way he can do it is if you vote for him.
- O’Toole, Erin. True Blue Leadership. Date accessed: June 24th, 2020.
- Lakoff, George. All New Don’t Think Of An Elephant! Know Your Values And Frame The Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, September 23, 2014.
- Luntz, Frank. Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Hatchette Books, January 2nd, 2007.
- Poulakidakos, Stamatis & Giannouli, Iliana. Greek Political Leaders on Instagram: Between “Soft” and “Hard” Personalization. Visual Political Communications. June 2019.
- Berger, Jonah. The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind. Simon & Schuster Inc, March 3rd, 2020.
- Erin O’Toole’s Social Media Platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube
Hey everyone! This was new for me, and I’ll admit I’m slightly nervous publishing it. If I missed anything (like a citation) please let me know so I can fix it! If you enjoyed this piece, leave a few claps for me. Let me know what you think. If you have any other campaigns, political figures, or advertisements you’d like me to break down for you, I’m all ears!
Carpe diem kids.