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What's wrong with the Alberta Medical Association's message? A technical primer

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With contract talks between the Alberta Medical Association and the provincial government back on again, after a fashion, a polling firm is out there now trolling to see how voters are reacting to the messages from Alberta's physicians and the AMA -- which acts like the province's most powerful labour union.

There's even a "Who Do Ya Trust" question in the survey that wonders if ordinary Albertans believe what doctors tell them when the Alberta Medical Association speaks on their behalf.

The same question asks how trusting the voters are when they get messages from well-known Conservative politicians, Alberta Health Services, various kinds of media and even other health sector labour organizations.

Of course, without insider information it’s impossible to say who is asking these questions, but it’s pretty easy to figure out why. Obviously, someone wants to gauge the effectiveness of those expensive newspaper ads the AMA is running calling Health Minister Fred Horne and the Redford Government a bunch of dirty, rotten liars for (almost) imposing a monetary deal on the docs in November.

It's said here these ads are not particularly effective, and just in case the survey noted above is being done for the government and not for the docs, here's some free advice for the AMA on how it could come up with an advertisement that might work better.

I have to pause here to tell readers that, over the years, I've been closely involved in the decisions to purchase an awful lot of advertising and, not to toot my own horn or anything, I know some stuff about what works and what doesn’t. I learned some of it the hard way, too.

I can tell you right off the top that great big grey full-page newspaper spreads loaded with facts, conveniently spun the advertiser's way, don't persuade anyone of anything, except maybe that you have more money than sense.

No, wait, that’s not quite right. Sometimes they can persuade your own supporters, who believe your interpretation of the facts anyway, that you're out there fighting for them -- which is not a bad thing on its own. And they can show your opponents you're willing to devote resources to a fight. But, the docs still need to face these three hard facts:

1)    While they were taught in medical school to act like they know everything, they don't know everything about advertising.

2)    A mass of facts, even if they're true and properly interpreted, is astonishingly ineffective at persuading the public of anything when there are competing messages.

3)    Therefore, you won't move public opinion with advertisements like the one the AMA has been spending its money on.

So what's wrong with the AMA’s advertisements, you ask?

Well, the physicians' association starts from a position in which the public assumes they're self-interested and suspects they're ready to do anything they can to sabotage public health care. That's why I can always squeeze a laugh out of someone when I call the AMA the Doc Workers Union.

Of course, some physicians do believe in public health care, but they sure don't seem like the ones who are speaking up for their colleagues.

So in this particular case, all these advertisements have really done is set the stage for a he-said-she-said argument between Dr. Michael Giuffre, president of the AMA, and Alison Redford, the premier of Alberta, ably assisted by Horne.

The AMA probably won't want to hear this. Like most of us, they'd prefer to assume everybody loves them. So my first question is, did they do any independent research about how much the public trusts them before they bought those ads?

The fact is, for a significant number of Albertans -- quite possibly a majority -- it’s the government that seems to occupy the moral high ground in this particular argument.

Now, let's look at some of the technical problems with this ad.

First, no reader who is not a doctor or a government official is going to spend more than about three seconds looking at it. So if you're the advertiser, you've got three seconds to make your point.

And where's the point in the docs’ ad? In small print, right at the bottom, where it argues "a government can't sign an agreement-in-principle BEFORE the election, and rip it up AFTER the election, without being held to account."

Want to bet about the being-held-to-account part? This ad would have been more effective if all it said in big, bold letters was, "You can't sign a deal before an election and rip it up after! That's what the Redford Government has to Alberta's doctors." Period.

I know why the docs did it this way. They wanted to build their argument, based on all the facts. What they achieved, though, was to make their argument disappear. Nobody reads the fine print.

Second, just as Pierre Trudeau knew but didn't want to believe, in advertising, passion works and reason doesn't. This ad is all about reason.

Building a case a brick at a time will get you an A in a university paper, which, presumably, is the sort of thing the academic overachievers who become doctors are good at. Alas, it will get you an F with the public. You can hate it, but that's the way it is.

If you want to grab the public's attention, you're going to need to spark an emotional response.

Third, as a good friend of mine in the advertising industry puts it, you need to dig a well before you're thirsty. We never hear from the docs except when they're angry and want something. As a result, the rest of us mostly tune them out.

Finally, no matter how much it outrages the docs, the government's counter argument makes sense to great swaths of the public. It goes like this: "Alberta's doctors are the best paid in Canada and we'll make sure they stay that way."

Look, I've worked for trade unions for more than a decade and I know this can be a bogus argument. But the reality is it's almost always effective with the public. You can only budge it if you confront it and demolish it.

So what would work? How about something like this:

HEADLINE: "Alberta’s doctors are the best paid in Canada. So what do they have to complain about?"

PICTURE: A physician tied to a chair, wearing a gag.

TEXT: "Sure, Alberta doctors well paid. But there's more to medicine than money. The Alberta government has lied to doctors and broken its agreements with them. It has threatened physicians who try to speak out. It has refused to recognize their professional organization. It has put bureaucrats in charge of decisions medical professionals should make. That's why doctors are upset and why they're demanding meaningful negotiations with the government. For more information, and the facts about how doctors are fighting to improve health care for all Albertans, click here…."

In the end, I suspect the docs will get what they want. But it won't be because of the effectiveness of the advertisements they're buying. It will be because they're powerful and well-connected people with lots of friends in the Progressive Conservative party infrastructure.

This post also appears on David CLimenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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