Framing, that is the way in which a choice is presented, is often key to winning political (and indeed non-political) debates. Consider the following two statements, for example:
It’s dreadful that the government is letting private companies access more medical data about people.
It’s great that the government is letting medical researchers access more medical data about diseases.
They are both ways you could describe the current government’s actual policy. Whether the issue is framed as being about private companies or medical researchers and whether it is about personal data or information about diseases makes a huge difference to whether or not people see it as a good or bad thing.
It’s an example of why the contest over how to frame an issue is often such an important part of campaigning. Sometimes, however, victory comes not from trying to replace the other side’s frame but instead from embracing it and turning it to your own advantage, as the experience of equal marriage campaigners from the US shows:
After the losses in Maine in 2009 and California a year earlier, LGBT advocates knew they needed to craft an effective [message]…
For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.
The gay rights coalition’s response was the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign. Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits. On the surface, it looks like any garden-variety public education campaign, a little vague, a little sappy. But … it signaled a sea change in the way gay advocates pled their case. This was a way to invite straight people to empathize with gay people, to reassure the majority that gay people wanted the same things that they did, and to shift focus from minority rights to points of commonality. The year Why Marriage Matters rolled out, 2011, was also the year that a slew of polls first showed majority national support for same-sex marriage.