Two words. Three. Sometimes four or five at the most. Smart, punchy ones that ‘got rhythm.’ Phrases that grab attention, tell a quick story, sound kind of familiar. Today, friends, that’s what it’s really going to take to save the world, our ecosphere here on planet earth, and our country. If it’s ever going to be ‘morning in America,’ if we are ever truly going to become that ‘shining city on a hill,’ we progressives and our friends in politics had better learn how to create American sound bites as powerful as these.
Unfortunately, today too many progressive pundits still give the impression that we must choose between sloppy, off-the-cuff sound bites and carefully framed statements, narratives and talking points. This is a major disservice to the progressive movement. The importance of well-framed sound bites in political communication today cannot be overestimated. It’s also well documented.
Even if you are a prominent national figure, when the political fight starts to get ugly, the only thing the public will really recall is a simple, viral American ‘truth bite.’ And you have to have them ready all the time, not just on prime time or in tv ads full of information. In the case of McCain for example, he’s not just ‘Mr. McSame,’ he’s also the ‘ex-maverick,’ now that he’s sold his soul to the Bush program, or a ‘fake copycat’ now that he claims to be a change agent too (‘change for the worse’), or ‘just a 10% maverick,’ since he actually voted with the Bush Administration about 90% of the time in the last eight years. Moreover, he and his running mate tell ‘whoppers,’ not ‘lies.’ Words and phrases like these are not only catchy. They show a kind of folksy, popular wit the American public likes.
As former President Clinton has said, ‘we can litanize and analyze all we want, but until people can say it in a phrase, we’re sunk.’ (New York Times book review Sunday, August 3, 2008, p. 22, ‘Era with No Name’ by Nicholas Thompson) And as Jonathan Alter says in ‘I’m Rubber, You’re Glue,’ (Newsweek, Sept. 1, 2008, p. 53):’. . .memorable lines, images, gaffes and monikers are 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.’
He goes on to say that [in politics] it’s vital to find ‘the quirky expression or colorful figure of speech that someone might actually remember.’ And he also points out that ‘the most common standard for stickiness is whether it fits into a pre-existing impression,’ giving as his example Bush’s ill fated remark re Homeland Security’s management of the Katrina crisis, ‘Heck of a job, Brownie.’ Using pop culture references or other familiar, slightly altered phrases or names can insure success. ‘Mr. McSame’ is a good example of the latter.
But as Barbara O’Connor, professor of political communication at Sacramento State University observed after Obama’s Saddleback appearance, ‘. . .the [Democratic] party is very bad at labeling things that provide an umbrellafor other positive memories. Democrats tend to mush around and don’t give people slogans like ‘Morning in America,’ which Reagan used to evoke a feeling of hope and promise in the country.’ ( San Francisco Chronicle, 8.21.08, ‘Revamp message, experts advise slumping Obama,’ by Chronicle Political Writer Carla Marinucci. ) We progressives have some of the same problems too.
So if we and our political friends want to ‘take back the American Dream’ any time soon, we’d better put our shoulders to the wheel right now and come up with some powerful, viral, American ‘truth bites.’ Reasonable remarks, long stories or rants don’t do the job nowadays.