Saturday, March 21, 2015

A study in the political messaging

The video above from States United to Prevent Gun Violence is a propaganda video that went viral. It led to response videos as gun advocates made their own videos trashing this one. This is how free debate is supposed to work.

I’m fascinated by political propaganda—and I think the word’s negative connotation is completely undeserved. Propaganda means communication that’s intended to influence people’s attitude on political or public policy matters. As such, they may be left, right or centre, and their effectiveness isn’t determined by their ideology. Propaganda may sometimes be spin, with the attempt at deception that implies, but it doesn’t have to be negative or misleading. In fact, sometimes the least effective propaganda is so precisely because it’s deceptive. Even so, all propaganda and political messages are by definition manipulative because they’re designed to get the viewer to see things the way the maker of the message wants them to—but so is ALL advertising!

The video above is intended to get people to change their thinking about guns by pointing out that, “Every gun has a history,” and then urging, “Let's not repeat it.” The style of the video is that of hidden camera social experiment of the sort that some TV news departments use to explore issues. It features a fake gun store with replica guns that allow the “gunshop owner” to tell how the gun was used to kill people—sometimes accidentally, sometimes in a mass murder. The “gun shop” metaphor is used on their website, where the guns’ stories are all viewable.

I think it’s reasonably effective, particularly when combined with the website. I could quibble over pacing, but even so, it’s a YouTube-friendly 3:27 in length, which means that viewers are likely to watch to the end. Indeed, it has a couple million views on YouTube, plus another couple million on Facebook, where I first saw it. Not bad numbers after only around three days.

Gun advocates will no doubt have not just quibbles, but outright disagreement with the messaging. I’ve been an advocate for gun control for decades, which is both obvious and old news. This means that I certainly wouldn’t immediately think of the objections that folks on the other side of the divide would have.

In this case, those with alternative views have used the same medium to make response videos, and that’s a good thing. Most of the responses that I noticed were made “guy and a camera” style, that is, with far less sophistication than the video above. That’s not a slam, though—it’s actually a compliment because it means that ordinary people are having their say, and that’s always a good thing.

However, while I haven’t watched all the responses, what I saw often used intemperate language and didn’t stick to verifiable facts. The most common complaint I saw was that the video doesn't allow ratings and comments are disabled. That's just plain irrelevant. Much as we all would like fact-based political debate, free from personal insults, and that sticks to the issue, that very often doesn’t happen. That’s too bad, but also part of robust political debate.

I don’t know that this video will change many people’s minds, which would be one measure of its effectiveness. However, it’s bound to make anyone who’s not already staunchly pro gun to at least stop and think, so it's by that measure I say it’s reasonably effective. Overall, however, I don’t think it’s even possible to make a video that will change people’s minds on an issue like this with such a sharp and intractable divide. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to watch people try.

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