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Minnesota’s marriage amendment battle: Power of ‘messaging’ may be the key

Both sides know the impact of the game-changing California “two princes” ad that experts believe swung voters to ban gay marriage.

On Oct. 7, 2008, one month before California voters were to decide whether to amend that state’s constitution to strip gays and lesbians of the right to marry, opponents of same-sex marriage aired a game-changing television ad.

“Mommy, Mommy, guess what I learned in school today?” a pig-tailed girl announces, rushing to show her mother a pink picture book. “I learned how a prince can marry a prince and I can marry a princess!”

This is the ad that is believed to have swung the California amendment battle.

If Proposition 8 did not pass, narrators cut in, schoolchildren would be taught about gay marriage and parents would have no right to object: “Think it can’t happen here? It already has.”

Gay rights supporters first froze and then, with less than two weeks to go, responded with fact-based ads that utterly failed to assuage voters’ fears or strike emotional chords.

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In terms of messaging, the princess ad, as it has since become known, is a direct descendant of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, whose late 1970s TV and print ads warned that gay-rights laws here and elsewhere would enable teachers to have sex with students and foster child prostitution.

The message’s endurance is partly explained by its effectiveness. In California, the princess ad aired over and over, part of a saturation campaign that is credited with handing Yes on 8 a narrow upset victory. Of the 13.7 million votes cast, 52 percent favored the amendment opposing gay marriage.

Powerful, pivotal ad

According to an exhaustive analysis later performed by LGBT-rights strategist David Fleischer, 500,000 of the 600,000 deciding voters were prepared to vote against the initiative until Yes on 8’s ads began airing.

The picture book the ad’s princess protagonist brought home from school was “King & King,” a Dutch fairy tale about a crabby queen who wants to hang up her crown but can’t persuade her son to marry. She lines up princess after princess, but it’s not until one shows up with her brother in tow that a royal wedding is in the cards.

In the 12 years since its publication, the book has gained more notoriety at the hands of same-sex marriage opponents than young readers, appearing in ads in other states where marriage rights are the subject of legal, legislative or election challenges.

Indeed, “King & King” and the conservative meme that has grown up around it has already hit the airwaves in Minnesota in a series of “Marriage Minute” videos being circulated by Minnesota for Marriage, the umbrella organization campaigning for the one-man, one-woman marriage amendment here.

“Children at a very young age, as early as kindergarten, will be taught in school that marriage is between any two adults, no matter what they have been taught at home, in church or in their ethnic traditions,” MOM spokeswoman Kalley Yanta explains in one of the group’s spots as the book’s cover is displayed. “Under that kind of law, those who believe otherwise will be treated as racists and bigots.”

In remarks published by the LGBT news site The Colu.mn, the former KSTP anchor took the message a step further.

“If marriage between homosexuals is legalized, what would some of the consequences be?” she asked rhetorically. “Parents who want to opt their kids out of the public school on the day that they’re teaching about homosexual relationships how it should be OK and accepted, and the parents are charged with discrimination and are hauled away sometimes in handcuffs. … We just can’t allow this to happen.”

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“King & King” has been the subject of several battles between parents and school districts, but no dispute has ended in the shackling of anyone, and there is no law that allows individuals to be “charged” with having bigoted or religious views. And yet, in the 29 states where gay marriage bans have gone to voters, the impressions created by the princess ad and others like it have proven incredibly difficult for same-sex marriage proponents to combat.

Competing 16-month messages

Still, expect Minnesota’s pro- and anti-amendment campaigns to draw plenty of attention. Unlike other states where gay-rights supporters have struggled to counter a last-minute advertising barrage, amendment opponents here will have 16 months to get their own message out, as well as apply lessons learned from other states.

The coalitions working on both sides of the issue are tight-lipped about their strategies, but area experts on political messages have ventured some predictions.

Ed Schiappaumn.eduEd Schiappa

Ed Schiappa is chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota and author of a forthcoming paper examining the arguments used in the legal and public spheres in California.

The more closely an issue is tied to a prospective voter’s identity, the harder it is to change their perception of it, he said. By now, same-sex marriage advocates know what doesn’t work and opponents know what does.

At least internally, each side has probably acknowledged that there are a certain number of voters on either side who will not be swayed. Because 2012 is a presidential election year, those voters are more likely to turn out but not guaranteed.

And because the early building of grass-roots foundations is key, each is likely paying particular attention to voters in churches and outstate communities where social networks are vitally important to building a base.

Bill Hillsmansimonandschuster.netBill Hillsman

Minnesota for Marriage’s strategy of creating online videos that can be easily passed around is likely to be particularly effective here, said political strategist Bill Hillsman, whose clever TV ads are credited with wins by seeming dark horses such as Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. 

“Particularly on the side not in favor [of same-sex marriage], they will do it earlier because the more conservative factors of the state tend to get organized earlier and better and to consolidate support earlier and better,” he said. “The more liberal groups tend to fall short because they assume support is going to be there when they need it.”

This is doubly true when the experience of other states suggests a high-buck barrage of ads can be expected late in the campaign. “The lesson from that is there is no substitute for organizing in this,” he continued. “The more organized you are, the less you have to match the other side dollar for dollar.”

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Targeting ‘the squishy middle’

When those dollars do start flowing, said Schiappa, “You go for the squishy middle.”

If you oppose gay marriage, that means two approaches: targeting people’s fears, as in the princess ad or another very effective 2009 ad that warned ominously of a “Gathering Storm,” and reaffirming the presumptions they already have.

In the latter, a violent storm sweeps over a group of people who decry their fears. “My freedom will be taken away,” one says. “I am part of a New Jersey church group punished by the government because we can’t support same-sex marriage,” says another. Gay-rights advocates, a woman insists, “want to change the way I live.”

(“The Colbert Report” produced a hilarious, dead-on spoof.) 

Another widely analyzed ad has no narration at all, instead reinforcing presumed childhood lessons about family by showing a blond toddler playing happily with bride and groom dolls before the words “Marriage: It’s Simple” scroll onto the screen.

“That was an elegant, elegant ad, regardless of your politics,” Schiappa said. “It doesn’t say anything. It reinforces what you already know. And you know what a married person is by age 3 or 4.”

Hillsman concurred: “When Wellstone was up for election in ’96, he voted for [the Defense of Marriage Act] and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I grew up believing marriage was between a man and a woman.’”

Both add that by virtue of having less exposureto same-sex households, older Americans are more likely to hold this view. And exposure and time are by far the most effective ways to change it.

“Getting people to watch ‘It’s a Brad, Brad World’ ” — in which Bravo reality show star Brad Goreski and his longtime partner Gary Janetti, who are shown planning a commitment ceremony because they can’t marry — “actually advances gay marriage,” said Schiappa. “Because you see them and think, ‘Why don’t they have the same rights as a heterosexual couple has?’ ”

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The question of gay marriage as a tangential plotline may be new, but Goreski and Janetti’s pain probably resonates with more viewers because the scores of gay TV characters that preceded them make their relationship seem more normal. Newsweek, he added, titled a story about this impact of “benign exposure” with “The ‘Will and Grace’ Effect.”

The messages with which Schiappa is familiar that have had the most resonance are some aired in New York, where gay marriage supporters filmed commercials encouraging people to urge their lawmakers to legalize it.

“Those ads were aimed at emotions,” he said, citing one, shot in warm colors, in which a woman talked of wanting the same things for both her daughters.

“Another New York example is a pair of women in their 60s who had been together 30-plus years who talked about wanting to finally get married,” Schiappa added. “They looked like your aunt. They weren’t scary.”

Hillsman agreed. “The things that tend to work are showing married gay couples and showing the normalcy of it,” he said. “People tend to fear it’s some kind of freak show, and to show the utter normalcy of it is very effective.”

Finally, to succeed, Minnesota’s amendment opponents “have to break the link between Christianity and opposition to gay marriage,” he said, which is why the aforementioned grass-roots organizing is most likely where this state’s campaign will be won and lost. 

“Neither side is interested in having to make their case to swing voters if they don’t have to,” Hillsman continued. “It’s much safer to drive turnout and depress turnout.”

In the end, both sides need to be exceptionally careful, in Hillsman’s opinion: “A misstep can be fatal in messaging.”