January 20, 1969, the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President was also when Harry Robbins Haldeman became White House Chief of Staff. Haldeman is best remembered as a central player in Watergate (for which he went to jail), but of interest here is that in the twenty years prior to joining Nixon, he was at J. Walter Thompson, one the country’s largest advertising agencies. In the modern vernacular, Nixon needed help and called upon one of the mad men. Ronald Reagan, a onetime pitchman for GE, put his trust in an ad hoc group of mad men superstars called the Tuesday Team including BBDO’s Phil Dusenberry (who created later GE ads) to hone his message and image. Dusenberry’s subsequent News Hour interview provides great insight into the role of advertising in modern campaigns. We brought a perspective, he said. Political strategists often [believe they] must cram everything there is to cram into this piece of communication. We believed just the opposite, that less was more…the way to go.
In recent years the GOP turned to Frank Luntz, a deft user to research to identify the most concise, compelling and persuasive language to sell ideas whether for political, commercial or other purposes. It was Luntz whose research showed that, in campaigning for its elimination, death tax was a more powerful descriptor than estate tax. In that regard, he also advocated climate change over global warming, a term that, while accurate, suggests less urgency with the obvious legislative consequences. As Luntz maintained in a 2007 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, all of the words and slogans he suggested (and that can be claimed by others like him) are truthful. Indeed, death does precipitate the tax, but it is the impression that counts. Words are pregnant with suggestive meanings that often transcend narrow definition. That’s what advertising, not to mention much of effective (even private) communication, is all about. Think about how many people won’t say that a loved one has died but prefer the euphemism that she or he passed away. To be sure there are some theological implications in that terminology — passed onto eternity — but for the most part passed seems gentler, more transitional, less final.
Of course, the use of slogans and sound bytes in American politics is nothing new. When Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, he was commenting on a phenomenon long in place, even if it had then reached a new level of sophistication. As early as 1840, in what has been called the first modern presidential campaign, Whig Henry Harrison, the log cabin candidate, ran on the slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! It was a reference to a victorious 28-year-old military battle and to his running mate. It was a slogan that lacked relevant substance, but one that carried a suggestive punch. Pepsi started proclaiming Twice As Much For A Nickel Too in 1939 literally meaning that they were offering more ounces of cola for the same money, but implying that their product was certainly on a par, if not identical, with Coke.
In 2008, President Obama’s campaign developed one of the most powerful, albeit totally ambiguous, assertions of all time, yes we can! The words resonated because they implied empowerment that transcended the candidate and his team to include the audience — the message in the word we was citizen power. Given how difficult the execution of change, one might argue that yes we can was an overpromise that has come to haunt the administration since. But more important, is that Obama’s use of this powerful slogan coupled with the single sound byte word change was for Democrats the exception and not the rule. For decades now, Republicans have been far more successful in both sloganeering and staying on the message, and that’s a gross understatement.
Republicans, whether with the 1994 Contract with America (in which Luntz was deeply involved) or characterizing their opponents as tax and spend, have taken control of the conversation. They repeat their sound bytes with unshakable discipline until both the public and the media adopt them, effectively defining issues as they would like. There is no revelation here. The wordsmith skill employed by Republicans over that last decades have been widely written about and discussed by analysts and pundits for years. What mystifies me is how inept the Democrats have been in responding and how lame their attempts have been in using language as a preemptive tool. Think about the healthcare battle where probably the most memorable (totally disingenuous and misleading) term was death panels. That characterization brought attention to seniors and Medicare, which were not the primary focus of a bill aimed covering the uninsured and containing unsustainable escalating costs for all Americans. Democrats were at a loss to find the right words, which not only has led to a misunderstood bill but one that likely and unnecessarily fell short of what it might have been. It’s hard to believe there is no Frank Lutz on the left. I must conclude no one is really looking for one.
Without question the susceptibility of Americans to slogans and sound bytes has deep sociological roots. As the Pepsi example suggested, and Vance Packard wrote about back in the 1950s, we are all subject to a constant barrage of images and words aimed at influencing our behavior. The new episodes of the popular NCIS TV shows employ suggestive product placements of iPhones and iPads that reinforce the messages of Apple’s commercials during the breaks. They expand an already powerful cutting edge user imagery brand into the heroic. This is not to say that advertising is bad per se — I’ve spent most of my career in branding — but that the simple message, the most powerful, most suggestive and least offensive, does by nature blur, if not skirt, the truth. Democrats generally believe Republicans use clever slogans to promote blatant lies. Not that Democrats are guiltless in this regard, but maybe they are more uneasy about it. Perhaps it’s a a matter of feeling obliged to explain the details, not wanting to dumb them down to some simplistic phrase that might leave the wrong or a bloated impression. That of course is putting the best face on it. Were that it was so simple. For some reason, probably for many reasons, Democrats, including another cerebral President (and I mean that positively), simply can’t bring themselves to get in that game of obfuscation and disinformation. Perhaps that’s admirable, but it sure does put them, and I would argue as a result the country, at a disadvantage. We may soon be paying the price. Again.