Just when we thought we understood the issues and views, campaign communications seem to be in a foreign language.
Why do people get re-elected despite terrible performance ratings? Why do campaign ads seem to talk only about the opponent and focus on trivia instead of issues? Why do candidates never really answer questions in debates? Just when we thought we understood the issues and views, campaign communications seem to be in a foreign language.
Political communication works best when it moves people emotionally.
“By appealing to another’s emotions rather than their intellect,” writes David Romanelli in his article “Emotions: How to Tune Into Them,” “you are more likely to trigger a response. . . A [person] who makes you think is interesting. . . But a [person] who makes you feel enough emotion to stand up and act. . . that is a truly powerful human being.”
Ronald Reagan’s successful “Morning in America” ad tugged at the heartstrings of a country tired of inflation and high interest, hostage crises, and other bad news. It offered a message of hope and optimism – not logic or issues.
“It’s morning again in America,” it began. “Today more men and women will go to work than ever before. . . 2,000 families will buy new homes. . . 6,500 young men and women will be married. . . It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were?”
Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad was almost all emotional images, with little dialogue. Seeking to discredit Barry Goldwater, who advocated nuclear arms in Vietnam, it began with a girl, picking daisy petals, counting slowly. When she reaches “9,” a male voice counts down a launch. “9. . . 8. . . 7. . .” The camera zooms in until the black of her pupil fills the screen.
When the countdown reaches zero, the blackness is replaced by a mushroom cloud. Johnson says: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live. . . We must either love each other, or we must die.”
A voiceover says, “Vote for President Johnson. . . The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
How can we translate emotion-laden messages into something logical, factual and meaningful? Don’t take messages at face value. You expect they will help you know something, but those messages are crafted to make you feel something. No one is trying to educate you. Ads are crafted to move you; many say nothing about the candidate.
How does the message make you feel? Tone and content can have a significant emotional impact. Once you identify the feelings, you can separate them from the information.
Who sponsors the advertising? If it’s the candidate’s committee, you know the candidate has seen and approved the ad. But the candidate may have no say in the content or tone of ads placed by political action committees (PACs), political parties or other independent groups.
Debate responses are limited to seconds, and usually consist of 10 percent answers to the question and 90 percent prepared text, loosely related to the subject. Notice how the candidate says what he does. His ability to think on the spot, knowledge of the facts, demeanor and style may tell you more than the words he uses or gaffes he might make.
Articles are written by reporters, often with sensationalism and juicy bits of trivial data. Sound bites are edited for impact. Read materials written by the candidates (books, like Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope,” or articles, like McCain’s Foreign Affairs article, “An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom”) or the “Issues” sections on campaign websites. They’re more important than which convicted felon is so-and-so’s friend from childhood.
Hateful or sensationalist email “urban legends” are often fabrications, exaggerations or distortions. Check out their validity on www.factcheck.org.
Remember, no system of electing officials is perfect. Learn what you can, and then go vote on Nov. 4th.
Steve Fradkin is president of The Wizard of Adz, a Canton, Mass., advertising agency that has provided message strategy and/or implementation for more than 150 campaigns. He lives in Stoughton, Mass.