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On Messaging

Sunday, January 4, 2009  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

E-mail from my favorite ad exec, “Bear in the Woods”:

While contemplating the New Year — resolutions, economy and all — and wondering what adjustments will ultimately be made to the tone and technique of conservative communications, I found myself feeling cautiously optimistic about the Right’s opportunity to oppose, for a couple of reasons. Both reasons, of course, warrant explanation, so here goes:[# More #]
The first reason is simplest, and is grounded in past experience. The GOP has, historically, been more successful as a challenger. We only tend to blow it once we get power. Lesson learned. Again.
But the second reason goes to the general nature of creating emotionally compelling communications. The fact is, it’s far easier, from a creative standpoint, to be against something than it is to be for something. While that may sound simplistic, a survey of historical advertising campaigns that have left lasting impressions, especially public service campaigns, will bear the statement out. It’s easier, and thus potentially more emotionally powerful, to be against smoking than it is to be for the health benefits of living smoke free. It’s easier, creatively, to be against drunk driving than it is to be for responsible consumption. It’s even easier to get people enthused about wiping out dandruff than it is to sell a clean scalp. Any given campaign can sell the benefits of the product alone, or can show how the product solves a (real or perceived) problem. Both techniques are used frequently. The latter is far more compelling to consumers.
Take a look at the lingering bumper stickers from the Democrats’ campaign. I see a good bit of HOPE, but I see far, far more CHANGE. Hope was the word that sold the “benefits” of the product. But Change was what resonated more — because it was the word that positioned the product as a solution to the perceived problem. “Change” said, “We’re against what is.” I won’t go into all the hashed and re-hashed dissections of “Change,” because I’m just looking at it technically, as a piece of creative. It positioned the product well, whether there was a drop of truth (or relevance) to it or not.
Recently there has been a good bit of commentary about the fact that Obama will be the first pop-culture president since JFK. While I personally think there’s some argument to be made for President Reagan, I agree. Let’s remember, though — pop culture doesn’t just happen. It’s created, purposefully, by Hollywood, or the recording industry, or Madison Avenue, or some combination of all three. To hit the proverbial home run, all the elements have to be there — product, message, positioning, verbiage, imagery, experience, interactivity — each and all executed in a manner that resonates emotionally. Positioning the product as the solution to a problem — being against the bad, and vanquishing it with the hero product — is but one aspect of the complete strategy, but it’s a powerful part. How much does 60’s pop culture owe to simply being against the “Establishment?”
The danger, of course, in embracing the role of the opposition, is the temptation to oppose every little thing in an attempt to manufacture a bogeyman where there is no credible one. The result is a mish-mash of messages, and a whiny voice. How many conservative columnists have, over the past eight years, used the phrase, “liberal crybabies?” Another lesson we can learn — only this time, a lesson in what not to do.
The right must identify a single emotionally compelling sweet spot — a problem wholly owned by the other side, and at the same time, recognized and relevant to a broad range of people, before any communications craft can be seriously applied to it. While that sounds both obvious and daunting, it’s done every single day for everything from shampoo to auto parts. And the other side has proven it can be done very well for presidential candidates and political positions. Identify that spot, and we’ve taken the first baby step toward crafting a compelling message for 2012. a tiny step, yes — but at least it’s in the right direction.
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