Which of these, if given the choice could you absolutely never support: “Estate Tax” or the more frightening-sounding “Death Tax?” How about “Healthcare Reform” versus a loathsome “Government Takeover?” Does “Climate Change” sound less sinister than “Global Warming?” Does “Economic Freedom” sound more pleasant to you than “Capitalism?” What about the emotionally charged catch phrases, “Death Panels,” “Class Warfare,” and “Drill Baby Drill?”
The linguistic concoctions mentioned above have been designed for one purpose only, which is to appeal to voter’s emotions and to get people to support or go against a particular issue or political ideology. Recently, we took a look at how candidates use color psychology/clothing choices and gestures/body language to subconsciously enhance their image in the minds of voters. Today let’s take a look at how the word choices of politicians are carefully studied and tested to evoke intense emotional responses.
Most of the meticulously crafted terms above can be attributed to one man: Frank Luntz. You’ve probably already heard of him as he’s been on many of the major talk shows in the United States as a guest at one time or another. He has made a successful career out of choosing and fine tuning words to best appeal to voter’s emotions and to sell political ideologies. He often can be seen as a regular correspondent and pollster on Fox News and has been a consultant for The Bush Administration, Italy’s ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and has run focus groups for elections in Australia, Ireland, and the UK. How does he know how appealing his word choices are? He literally measures brainwaves of people during speeches made by political candidates and conducts measured research and thorough polls. Frank Luntz believes, “It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.”
His website, LuntzGlobal says the following regarding word choices as a powerful marketing force:
“We have counseled Presidents and Prime Ministers, Fortune 100 CEOs and Hollywood creative teams in harnessing the power of language and visuals to change hearts, change minds and change behaviors. We have become a hyper-attentive nation that is quick to judge. The words and visuals you use are more important than ever in determining whether you win or lose at the ballot box, the checkout line, and the court of public opinion. We know the words that work. Do you?”
His clients are advised to use his recommended word choices to help sell a message. And sell they do, though not without the occasional controversy. For example, one of Luntz’s creations from the spring of 2009, “Government Takeover” to be used in place of “Healthcare Reform” recently came under fire by Politifact who awarded Luntz their 2010 Lie of the Year Award. Yet, as Luntz readily admits in his extraordinary article over at The Huffington Post, “The 11 Words for 2011”: “I realize that my work is often controversial, and often you like to attack the messenger, but it’s the message that matters.”
Love him or hate him, it’s hard not to respect Frank Luntz’s mastery of the power of word choices as an effective marketing tool. You can see him in action in Chapter 5 of the award-winning 2004 PBS documentary, The Persuaders, which can be viewed in full, online for free.
So what does Frank Luntz advise politicians to say and communicate during the 2012 Presidential election? See his answers here from a recent interview he did for Fox and Friends a few weeks ago:
Kristen Palana is a Professor of Digital Media at The American University of Rome. Visit her online at kpalana.com.