I’ve long reflected that in my business — explaining issues to the public — the facts only take you so far. What you call something or how it is “framed” may be just as important as the actual contents of the package.
One of the most underreported strategies in the policy wars and the formation of popular opinion is the rhetorical arms race. In fact, every advocate’s first tactical move should be to employ language that has unique appeal while putting the opposition in a defensive crouch. For instance, when did “don’t drive drunk” — implying knowledge of limits and the law — get replaced with “don’t drink and drive” — implying not one drink? Do you think that was accidental? Of course not. Anti-alcohol activists saw an opportunity to message against social drinking.
Labor activists, in the same vein, have appropriated “living wages” to encourage legislating higher pay that crowds out calls to hold minimum wages constant. Who is winning the abortion rhetoric war of “right to life” versus “right to choose”?
In a poll I conducted while commenting on the pork industry, I asked two samples of Americans what they thought about an issue most had never heard of: housing pigs. One set was asked what they thought about confining pregnant sows in the industry’s historically described “gestation crates.” The second group was asked for their reaction to more specifically defined “individual maternity pens” that provide the same protective confinement. The opinion difference was stark on an issue where people had no knowledge.
The public opinion wars are often most like a “Mad Men” version of classic branding: How many people enjoying a delicious entree of “Chilean sea bass” would have ordered it by its original name of “Patagonian toothfish”? How much different would the polling be if Genetically Modified Organisms were first introduced as Genetically Improved Foods?
On the subject of the Middle East, there are those who for years have kept referring to Palestinian “refugee camps.” Any trip to that part of the world shows that Palestinian living quarters are often established neighborhoods with permanent multistory apartments. They might have been refugee camps in 1948. But speaking in the language of temporary quarters keeps the war issue alive 67 years later.
In war, as in politics, the weapon of language is important because words have real meaning. They create images, emotions and ideas. And ideas have consequences. In a world of sound bites that replace facts, issue semantics are most important. And in politics, as in war, every battle is won or lost before it is fought (to borrow Gordon Gekko’s paraphrase of Sun Tzu).
The need to change the debate before selling a point of view begins much earlier than the debate itself — to win, the debate should be on your terms, on your home field, with your plan. Those on defense are left to argue their case in a hostile setting that was established by others.
Today the so-called food Nazis who want to control what you eat are on a campaign presetting the terms of the debate. No longer are they playing the paralyzed game of “good food versus bad food.” The new game is food “addiction.” After all, if certain foods are more like cocaine or heroin, we can’t expect people to exercise good judgment or personal responsibility when these ingredients are hidden in their foods.
Left unaddressed, that narrative may succeed. And then it’s game, set, match for food companies and many other consumer goods when it comes to product demonization. The language may set the table for higher taxes, consumer warnings and control of availability. To say nothing of lawyers suing for “failure to warn.”
Now you’ve been warned as well.
• Rick Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington public affairs firm.