Are you reinforcing your opposition's arguments?

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The following is a reposting of a blog written for the brand new Community Commons website, an interactive resource for leaders from communities, philanthropy, and government agencies, as well as private, academic and civic organizations working together on policy, systems and environmental changes for healthier, more equitable communities. BMSG was asked to moderate the Media and Marketing group. Check it out at communitycommons.org.

DON'T think of a pink elephant.

(You're thinking of one right now, aren't you?)

This little exercise refers to UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff's book on the subject of framing in politics, Don't Think of an Elephant, and how we can apply his framing advice in messages designed to promote healthy living policies. (Thanks to Liana Winett, research associate professor in the School of Community Health at Portland State University, for the suggestions and examples below).

Do you ever find yourself bringing up your opposition's frame before she or he does? Have you ever said or heard someone else say something like, "Our healthy living policy goal is NOT nanny state legislation" when nobody else has mentioned the words "nanny" or "state"?

By raising the precise frames we are intending to counter, even if only to refute them, we are creating hurdles we now must jump over. Moreover, we may be suggesting these arguments to those who had not yet considered them.

An actual example from a 2010 Oregonian article about a proposed local healthy vending machine policy: "The governor is not talking about taking away people's french fries. He just wants to offer them the choice of having carrots."

Next time your advocacy group's spokesperson starts a sentence with "this is not about", stop and think: Is this going to reinforce the counter frame?

Other potential pink elephant indicators:

  • "We are not"
  • "We don't intend to ____, rather ____"  
  • "This can be an issue of ____, but ____" 
  • "It is expensive, but ____"

Sometimes we have to counter an opposition's argument, but when we can set the frame, we should use our own words. Can you think of a quote that was meant to counter the opposition's frame but instead inadvertently reinforced it? Share your examples.


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