Transformation – change – is the last of our five elements
and the goal of every story. When you see it, it is incredibly powerful. Change
as a human experience – not as a bumper sticker, not a slogan, not as something
to be achieved in the future – but as a here and now reality is what all
elections are about. This ad, which I found on Andrew Sullivan’s site, lets change
show through unadorned. Changing the world starts by changing your mind. What more is there to say?
Since early in the primaries this blog has taken the
position that Obama’s strong element – the basis of his campaign – is Passion
(his ability rally people around a central motivating core concept) and that
McCain’s is the element we call the Antagonist (his ability to define the story as his struggle against whatever is between him and his goal).
No story element is better or worse than any other. You need
all five to tell a compelling story, and every storyteller has their own style and
preference. But it is fascinating that as we come into the home stretch that we have such a strong visual contrast between the two campaigns.
And on the other you have McCain and company saturating the
phone lines with highly targeted robocalls that define Obama as pretty much
whatever it is that the listener might find unappealing. Phone calls, even robotic ones, are by
nature private and personal.
Election day has both qualities. When you vote you get to feel that you are part of something much bigger than yourself – and you get to brag
about it by wearing you “I voted sticker.” And when you are actually casting your ballot you are totally alone with
your own deepest and most private thoughts and fears. It is a great story contrast – a suiting end to
a long and historic campaign.
One thing Bob and I are questioned about when we talk on The
Elements of Persuasion is the connection between the five story principles
we use (Passion, Hero, Antagonist, Awareness and Transformation) and the actual
Greek Elements (Fire, Earth, Water, Air and Space). The relationship is more
than metaphoric – or if it is metaphoric it is such a deep cultural
metaphor that you have to consider it as a given anyway.
Case in point: The ads being run by the DNCC against Elizabeth
Dole’s reelection to the Senate. This is a very effective campaign that moves
from two Good Ol’ Boys on rocking chairs on a porch to the even more effective direct
attack below. The message – Elizabeth Dole isn’t really from here any more, so how can she possibly continue as our Senatorial Hero – is as personal as that quiet moment when you are alone in the voting booth.
All politics is local. When a candidate loses their
connection with the unique patch of ground they represent, they are toast. Pointing this out is particularly effective
in the South – new or other wise – which has long memories and gave us the term
“carpetbagger” in the first place. The
folks we see talking in this spot are justly described as “the salt of the
earth” – heroes in their own right.
If you’ve followed this blog since the WGA strike –
boy, that seems a long time ago doesn’t it – you know the deep respect we have for Dave Letterman and the master storytellers behind the Late Show,
Here is Dave talking about John McCain. It is a prime
example of how a small personal story can make a larger political point
precisely by remaining small and personal. Done right, it can be devastating.
“I don’t know if I can trust him.” Have you ever seen a shiv
slipped between a politician’s ribs with more grace and style? And describing
Keith Olberman as “that kid with the really big head” gives it just the right
sense of good-natured balance. Masterful.
Like a lot of people who spend way too much time prowling
the web I was shocked by this YouTube of folks coming out of a Palin
Rally convinced Obama was a terrorist. If that is the take away from a GOP rally
something is seriously wrong.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons not to vote for Obama
– enough so that I don’t really have to list them here – but him being a “one
man terrorist cell” whose “name says it all” is not one of them.
“Of course, not every story has a happy ending, and
there is a very real moral danger in creating villains… Story telling is innate
in human beings, but it is in some respects a value-free process. Fortunately,
there is a fail safe. Those stories that produce destructive and negative
actions tend to cannibalize the people who tell them. They rapidly eliminate
themselves from the cultural dialogue…”
But what do we do while we wait for the fever to run its
course? Listening to the wise words of our political elders seems a good place
This speech by Republican Jim Leach, formerly the
Representative from Iowa’s 2nd District, fills the bill. It was
given at the Dem convention, and is an endorsement of Obama, but that isn’t the
point. The point is that it is truly bipartisan.
What I really like about it is that it places the story of
this election cycle in the larger context of the Four Great Questions that have
been at the heart of every American election from our county’s beginning and lists progressive
politicians from both parties who have helped our country move towards achieving our ideals. It would make the kernel for a great High School
History class discussion.
Sometimes the real gems from a political convention don’t
standout until later. This speech is one of those. To find out more about Jim
Leach, click here.
Sarah Palin is not the only interesting story coming out of
Alaska. Ted “Hell No” Stevens is on trial for failing to report “gifts” from
“lobbyists.” His is also running for reelection. The DNCC put
together this little gem. I don’t like negative ads, but this one is too genre
perfect to pass up. If you still have doubt that great political ads are story
driven, this 30 sec spot should lay them to rest.
A quick 5-elements analysis: The Passion (irreducible core)
of the ad is carried by the opening sound track – a cross between a political
thriller and a local news stations investigative reporter theme. It establishes beyond doubt that this will be a crime story. The people in the van are our Heroes
(we even see Stevens’ house on a video monitor stressing their point of view is
our point of view). Stevens is the Antagonist “He thinks he is above the law”.
And crucially there is a moment of clear awareness when one “reporter” says
disgusted, “And I voted for him.” Finally a transformative tag line “It’s not
about Alaska anymore.” This is great stuff.
BTW, if anyone has any great Repub ads I’d love to analyze
them. Most of what I’ve seen from the Repubs are tired retreads, but I’m
probably missing something. Enlighten me, please.
The other day I was at my
doctor’s office and he started in on Health Care. Since he was holding a very
large needle in his hand at the time he had my total attention.
What he said made sense but I
have no expertise in this area, so I asked him to write it up and I’d post it
as submitted as an example of informed grass roots storytelling. If there is
anyone on the other side of the issue that wants to respond I’ll post that as
is as well (same length please). Me? I just want to sit back and watch the fur
Doc Eliot wrote:
The McCain Health Plan
consists of nothing more or less that the unlimited federal subsidy of
Yes. This is
true. The Republican health care plan to reward insurance company lobbyists is
camouflaged by promoting the issuance of “Tax Credits”. This money would go
directly to the insurance companies. Furthermore, there would be de-regulation,
freeing out-of-state insurance companies to do business across state lines
while violating the states’ rights to regulate, and therefore resulting in the
lowest common denominator of health care. Insurance companies would be free to
continue to raise prices, deny payments, and meddle in the practice of
medicine. There is no current Republican plan to actually improve health care.
How do they plan to raise the money by which the federal government will
subsidized the insurance companies? Currently, employer health benefits for
employee are non-taxable. The McCain “Health” plan would tax this money!!! The
McCain plan would increase taxes in order to subsidize insurance companies.
The Obama Plan is
extensive, realistic and designed to engage and address all health care issues.
Please go to booth candidates’ websites and verify the truth of the situation
Do not be
fooled. Your health and the health of everyone you care for is at stake.
What do you do when your opponent consciously decides to
stir things up by launching attacks that are just this side of inciting a lynch
mob? Or, because on this blog politics is viewed as a test bed for broader
communications strategies, your company’s chief competitor launches a viral
rumor campaign against your flagship product?
The best response is a calm and trusted voice that can set
things right. It could be a CEO who steps forward (the Japanese are
particularly adroit at that) but an endorsement from an outsider whose
voice is broadly trusted by your target
audience is much, much better.
This radio ad, running now in the battle ground state of
Virginia, is a micotargeting
masterpiece. And the music in the background ain’t half bad neither. Don’t miss it.
A very big thanks to Kathy G or at The G-Spot for putting
this up. Click over to her website and check it out. She has a lot more of Ralph Stanley’s music posted. My
favorite? “Man of Constant Sorrow” which pretty much covers how many folks will
be feeling when they open up that envelop and see their 401K statement latter this
Great stories always have an inherent symmetry. This is
particularly true of those stories written by history.
At the beginning of the Bush Administration in 2002 John
DiIulio, who had run President Bush’s Office of Faith Based
Initiatives resigned and called Karl Rove’s minions “Mayberry Machiavellis.” For many the name stuck.
But among Mr. Rove’s most useful political skills is his
ability to see the branding gems hidden inside many insults. Attack George W’s
grammar and miraculously his syntax will become even more tortured. Then Neocon
commentators will stress how “down home” and “mainstream” W’s wisdom really is,
as if most folks didn’t actually pass the seventh grade and most “ranches”
aren’t devoted to growing cattle but to producing an endless supply of scrub
brush that needs to be telegenically cut.
So it is to be expected that the Mayberry theme of this
White House might lead the Rovian Repubs to choose a down home Mayor from a
backwoods little town even smaller than the mythical Mayberry for the role of
And Sarah Palin, who got here training in front of the
camera as a local sportscaster for KTUU-TV in Anchorage, is playing it for all
it is worth. And more power to her. Her unique speaking style, so easy to
imitate and so brilliantly parodied by Tina Fey, is a form of verbal branding that will make sure her 15 minutes of fame won’t
run out who ever wins this election.
That her verbal style is a conscious decision – and so
worthy of praise – can be seen if you listen to how she responded in debates when she ran for Governor of Alaska. The winks, nods, “aw shucks” and “I’ll get
back to yas” just aren’t there.
To see how effective this type of verbal branding can be in
building a heroic persona, listen to the Master, Andy Griffith in his classic storytelling routine “What It Was, Was Football.” One problem for McCain: If Palin is playing wise and steady Sherrif Andy,
who is playing the socially awkward, nervously erratic and occasionally irrationally
angry role of Barney Fife?
Yes, Virginia, there are real villains in politics. In our
book The Elements of Persuasion we stress not
demonizing an antagonist. In the real world, as opposed to Hollywood, you
should be careful using the V word. But there are times it fits. We are
reaching one of those times.
I’m not talking about nasty attack ads. Those are often in
the eye of the beholder. Your hero is my antagonist. Your scandalous lie is my
biting social commentary. It’s an American tradition that goes back at least to
the mercurial friendship and bitter hurt feelings of Jefferson and Adams. A
little mud slinging keeps our democracy down to earth, and hurray for us for
doing it. Americans are a scrappy bunch. That is one reason we’re such lovable
galoots. But the desire to win can go too far.
If there is one thing all Americans should agree on it is
that every citizen has a right the right, if not the duty, to vote. That is not
a technical right granted by a benevolent State, it is an Inalienable Right
made tangible by the sacrifices of our Founding Fathers and “watered by the
blood of patriots” in every generation since. So organized voter suppression is
If this is actually happening, shame on whichever party
Of course there are more
sophisticated technical ways of denying – or enhancing – the vote (and both
parties seem to do it). Check out HBO’s Hacking Democracy – availabe on disk – a
truly scary documentary. Perfect for your pre election Halloween Party.