In Search of the Indelible Metaphor

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Filed under: Hype, Propaganda and Disinformation, Spin

I”™m Rubber, You”™re Glue …
by Jonathan Alter
September 1, 2008

It’s hard to predict what will stick. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was a hand-scrawled sign hung in Little Rock.

When NEWSWEEK reported earlier this summer that the McCain family owns at least seven houses, few outside the hothouse of politics noticed. Voters assume that all politicians are rich and didn’t seem to care that John McCain’s wife, Cindy, is worth $100 million and owed back taxes on one of the properties. But when Politico asked McCain last week in New Mexico how many residences he and his wife owned and he answered, “I think””I’ll have my staff get [back] to you,” the story suddenly took off, fueled by the impression that McCain is old and out of touch with Americans struggling to pay their mortgages. Will it do his campaign real damage? Depends on the “stickiness.”

The same goes for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver. The buzz of 70,000 people screaming for him at Invesco Field will wear off if he doesn’t frame his economic message in a way that otherwise inattentive Americans can recall. Without an indelible metaphor, all of his policy speeches are written in invisible ink.

Modern campaigns are about flinging 10 things against the wall every day and hoping something sticks. Everything else, from fund-raising to advertising (paid for by the fund-raising) to speechmaking to Web strategy, is in the service of applying that adhesive, either to cement the candidate’s message or muck up the opponent’s engine with sludge.

That’s because memorable lines, images, gaffes and monikers act like a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe. They get your attention and may even shape your voting behavior. In the world of marketing, “sticky branding” means intentionally creating an emotional attachment to a consumer product. In the blogosphere, a “meme” (a word coined by the science writer Richard Dawkins in 1976) is an idea that spreads virally, beyond anyone’s control. Political campaigns often try to add gobs of glue (as Obama did on the seven-house story), but why some stories stick and others don’t remains something of a mystery.

Pop-culture references help. Ronald Reagan used a Clint Eastwood line, “Go ahead, make my day,” to great effect. When Walter Mondale wanted to stigmatize Gary Hart for lacking substance in 1984, he quoted from an ad for Wendy’s: “Where’s the beef?” The political spot that made the biggest splash this summer aired only briefly on TV. But the use of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton helped McCain label Obama as just another celebrity. If big names cut through the clutter, so does name-calling. GOP hit men like to refer to “Barack Hussein Obama,” the better to brand him as a foreigner. And Democratic polemicists are already referring to “Exxon John” and “another four years of John McSame.”

There’s nothing fair about the process. Read the rest of the article here.

photo: British Embassy