Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Scroll down if you want to skip this essay and go straight to the many Attack Ads

Essay on where attack ads fit in a communication strategy-
Lessons from the Death Penalty Trenches
by jsmckay

I defend death penalty cases for a living. In order to do so, it is critical to distill lots of small facts into a few large emotional themes. For example, juries won't spare a killer because he had an abusive dad. They spare him because the guy's homelife was the kind of nightmare we all try to protect our children from. Trees are tools. The forrest means everything. Bush/Rove understands this. We do not.

Bush's victory was a brilliant triumph of strategic message control. It was not the product of a great ideological shift. He beat us the same way he beat Ann Richards (a Texan) and Al Gore (a Southerner-at least as much as W.), both of whom were expected by many to win in a landslide. He used a simple but brilliantly executed 2 prong attack:

1. Message discipline. COMMUNICATION IS LEADERSHIP. There is no difference between the two. It motivates the base and wins the middle. Kerry, while I liked him and thought he'd be a great president, was ineffectual at this. He was "the real deal," sought "A Stronger America," promised a "fresh start," and so on. His message was constantly changing, bouncing from one tree to the next, never settling on the forrest that would be his defining theme. Along the way, he missed plenty of trees. The day the soldiers mutinied and refused to go on a mission Kerry should have been saying here is yet another example of how this man is going to get your sons killed. Instead, he talked about flu shots.

2.Personal attack. The problem with Bush wasn't that he had the wrong positions. The problem was that he was an incompetent human being. Rove understands that the public votes for the man, not the policy. That's why "flip-floper" worked better than "W stands for Wrong." If you take down the other guy, it doesn't matter if you're on the right side of the issues.

These approaches were brilliantly executed, right down to making Bush's crowds take a loyalty oath before letting them attend his speaches. They created lasting themes for voters as they entered the booth. They did know where Bush stood, and in a time of fear, that was more important than the fact that they disagreed with him on most of the issues. The forrest was clear. That's why they won.

It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of thematic clarity and discipline. That's what they teach you at the best trial schools in the nation. It is the essence of what motivates people to make important decisions. Jury trials are like mini-elections and in the world of saving killers' lives, every one of them takes place in a red state.


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