Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Persuaders

I just finished watching Douglas Rushkoff's Frontline episode, "The Persuaders," which covers the advertising process, the psychology of marketing, and marketing in politics. If you missed it, you can watch it online, starting this Friday, here.

From the interview with Frank Luntz, Republican political consultant/syntax-meister (boldface mine):

What about replacing "global warming" with "climate change?"

What is the difference? It is climate change. Some people call it global warming; some people call it climate change. What is the difference?

Look, for years, political people and lawyers -- who, by the way, are the worst communicators -- used the phrase "estate tax." And for years they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it because the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a death tax, because you're taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It's the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is. But they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I argue that is a clarification; that's not an obfuscation.

The language of America changed with the election of Bill Clinton, because with all due respect to my friends on the Republican side, Bill Clinton is the best communicator of the last 50 years. He felt your pain. Now, I'd argue that he caused your pain, but at least he felt it while he was causing it. When Bill Clinton spoke, his words were so good, and they were spoken with such passion. And that biting of the lower lip and the squinching of the eyes -- you just couldn't turn away. Bill Clinton made Frank Luntz because Bill Clinton discovered the power and the influence of words. Now, I'd like to think that I apply them to clients, to philosophies, to products and services and corporations that I believe in, that are good. I don't argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it's up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire; fire can heat your house or burn it down.

Good point on the "estate tax" to "death tax" metamorphosis. But the word "death" is so connotative, it carries so much emotion and baggage, that using the word itself creates a cloud of negativity in the subconscious. Placement of "death" next to "tax" -- no explanation or definition needed. Instant repulsion.

Equally fascinating was the story of how a psychiatrist taps into the unconscious minds of focus groups to find the "reptilian" impulse that makes us buy things. This is the guy who told automobile companies to make their SUVs bigger (think HUMMER) if they want to sell products, because the reptilian desire for an SUV is really a desire for domination.

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