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Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008 at 11:06 am

Are Political Consultants Better at Marketing than Most Marketers?

By Jeff Sexton
October 21st, 2008

It sometimes looks that way to me.  At least they seem more tightly focused on creating effective messaging than many marketers.  Political campaign consultants routinely manipulate the nuances of words in order to consciously frame and re-frame the way people think about a topic, while far too many marketers don’t.

Here’s an example from the world of politics:

When California’s conservatives wanted to define the word “marriage” by law, Proposition 22 was added to the California ballot.  It was officially titled the “Defense of Marriage Act.”  As the date for voting drew near, it became apparent that the proposition was going to lose by a wide margin.  Finally, a wizard said, “The meaning of a word is always bigger than its definition; words carry associations.  The word ‘defense’ is a violent word, conjuring associative memories of ‘national defense’ and ‘defense budget.’ It makes us think of Vietnam and bloodshed.  And what is the ‘marriage act’?  Sex.  Juxtapose the word ‘Defense’ with the ‘Marriage Act’ and you get a very uncomfortable feeling.  The subconscious image is that of a battered wife, defending herself in a marriage, or of a woman defending herself from sexual assault.  No one wants to vote for a thing called the Defense of Marriage Act.”

With just a few weeks to go, the new ads began talking about “Proposition 22, the Protection of Marriage Act.”

It won by a landslide.  “Protect” and “Defend” may mean the same thing in a dictionary, but they’re radically different in the human mind.*

And of course, there’s Newt Gingrich’s infamous memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” detailing entire lists of words designed to frame and color issues to favor GOP policies and platforms.

Indeed, when it comes to using strategic word choices to frame and re-frame the way an audience perceives an issue, the academic authority on the matter is George Lakoff, author of such noted books as Metaphors We Live By, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, and Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.  And, as one can guess from the title of that last book, George is not shy about applying his Linguistics theories to political debate.  In fact, he recently authored an entire post advising the Obama Campaign on how to most advantageously frame the issues.

Even more topically, there’s plenty of debate and analysis about whether “bailout” is an appropriate term for the proposed legislation to address our current financial crisis.

So clearly at least some politicians get this at a very deep level.  But what about marketers?  Here’s an example I’ll steal from Holly Buchanan: why do spas continue to talk about their treatments in terms of pampering and indulging?  Are these words really activating the right mental frames to best position a spa’s services?  Wouldn’t most women prefer to think about renewing or rejuvenating or healing rather than the more self-centered or selfish frames of indulging and pampering?

How this fits in with Web copy

When asked if and why political consultants are better marketers than most mainstream marketers, one of the very best campaign strategists in the business, Brett Feinstein, wrote back with the following:

“It’s not so much that we are better marketers…we aren’t. Most of the industry is filled with utterly incompetent marketers. This is a backwater for advertising. We make less than our equals in the commercial ad world and work a lot harder. It’s that we focus on different things…

We often see things in real time. Because of how most serious campaigns deliver message (few non-political advertisers buy 1,200+ GRP a week in a given market) we generally do not have to wait a few weeks to see the effect of what we are doing. In the biggest of campaigns, we are running tracking polls nightly. At the Congressional level, we are doing it weekly. We literally see if the ad moves the needle almost instantaneously and can tweak (or change) message much more nimbly than in the commercial advertising world. We also just move faster too. If Coke’s sales were plummeting, it would take them weeks if not months to change an ad campaign’s strategy and content. Just shooting and producing one new TV spot would take weeks and huge expense. I can shoot and produce a top-notch political spot in a day and have it on the air with a new message or look or whatever. And once I put it on the air, I can see if it is working within a day or two…” [Emphasis mine]

In a word, Brett’s answer as to why the best political strategists often create better messaging strategies than their marketing counterparts is not skill or deep theory but:

  1. Measurement – they invest time and money to see the effects of their efforts so they can know what is and isn’t working.
  2. Testing – they tweak and fine-tune copy and messaging during a campaign
  3. Agility – coming up with a great new strategy is worthless if you can’t implements it in time to win the election.

Would it surprise you to learn that Web Optimization requires the same three traits?

  1. Without the proper analytics and measurement, you can’t really know how your visitors are reacting to your copy/content.
  2. Without tools to conduct A/B and multivariate testing, you can’t effectively drive continued improvement.  An understanding of language nuance is important, but you’ll still want to take your copy changes to the “court of last resort” with testing.
  3. And without the ability to rapidly implement important website changes, you’ll incur enormous opportunity costs and fall behind your more aggressive competitors.

        So, in my opinion, internet marketers really could learn a lot from (the very best) political consultants – both of the importance of messaging AND the importance of ongoing optimization.

        * Quote taken from pg.113 of Magical Worlds of The Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams

        ** Of course, most politicians could learn quite a bit from business on the importance of creating customer loyalty by actually delivering on marketing promises ;)

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        Comments (9)

        1. [...] In a word, Brett’s answer as to why the best political strategists often create better messaging strategies than their marketing counterparts is not skill or deep theory but:. Measurement – they invest time and money to see the effects … Read the rest of this great post here [...]

        2. Great post Jeff. I’ve learned so much about marketing to women in this most recent presidential campaign.

          In the vice-presidentail debate, CNN had real-time reactions from undecided voters, split out by men and women.

          It was fascinating to see that when Palin talked about she and McCain being “mavericks”, it didn’t score well with women.

          If you look at the definition of “maverick” you’ll see that it is someone who bucks the system, and goes it alone, independently.

          Women like the idea of someone who is a reformer, but the idea of someone going it alone, instead of working in a group, may not resonate with them.

        3. [...] Are Political Consultants Better at Marketing than Most Marketers? Are Political Consultants Better at Marketing than Most Marketers? [...]

        4. [...] people to think of you within the frame of dweeb/not dweeb (or Crook/Not Crook).  This is actually a well known phenomenon that is actively used by modern politicians.  Just as asking people not to think of white bears is actually counterproductive, so too is [...]

        5. [...] an article posted on GrokDotCom.Com, writer Jeff Sexton maintains that political consultants make excellent marketeers, since they are [...]

        6. Awesome article this.

          Wow, I’m subscribed. And yes, that’s excellent copy.

          The bad thing that I feel about copy in the politics is that you shouldn’t be relying on copy. Clear and clean speeches and ads don’t make a good candidate.

          I’ll get off that horse.

          Great article.

        7. Tertius,

          I hear you. Still, whether for good or bad, Man is not swayed by reason alone. In order to impel a human to action, you have to give your reasoning emotional impact. And you have to do that through words.

          So no matter how substantive a candidate and his platform are, clarity alone will not be enough to win an election. Persuasion will have to enter into it.

          The distinction to make is, are you using rhetoric/persuasion in order to more honestly convey the emotional truth of your message, or are you using it to mislead you audience into thinking that “the worse is the better cause.”

          - Jeff

        8. I’d agree, this last election proved to a lot that the political marketers really had to learn a new language in marketing to women, and pushing change. I’m curious, and I bet it is posted somewhere the total marketing $$ put out in this last election.

        9. [...] have been able to adapt and incorporate new media into their strategies. However, as Future Now’s Jeff Sexton points out, there are other areas where marketers could benefit from paying closer attention to how [...]

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        Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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