The presidential campaign has brought forth a bumper crop of jumbled, incoherent messages.
As marketers work on their companies’ stories, we can learn a lot from the mistakes politicians are making with their messaging right now.
Incoherent messaging is an equal-opportunity trap that catches candidates from both parties, including:
- Republicans Ben Carson and Donald Trump
- Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Let’s begin with Republican candidate Ben Carson, who spouts off frequently:
“[American] people are not as stupid as [the media] think they are. Many of them are stupid, OK. But I’m talking about overall.” Source
Lesson #1: Never call the media or your audience “stupid,” even as a “joke.”
“Here’s a nation, one of the founding pillars was freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And yet, we have imposed upon people restrictions on what they can say, on what they can think. And the media is the largest proponent of this, crucifying people who say things really quite innocently.” Source
Lesson #2: “Innocent” intentions don’t relieve you of responsibility for your message or the facts.
“[America is] very much like Nazi Germany — and I know you’re not supposed to talk about Nazi Germany, but I don’t care about political correctness — you know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate a population,” Carson said. “We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe, and it’s because of the PC police, it’s because of politicians, because of news — all of these things are combining to stifle people’s conversation.” Source
Lesson #3: Are you so desperate for attention that you must compare your topic with Nazi Germany?
Equal incoherence arose among Democrats about the terrorist attack in Paris. Despite having 24 hours after the attack to prepare for a scheduled TV debate, all 3 Democratic presidential candidates struggled to outline anything resembling a coherent position in their opening statements.
Bernie Sanders responded to a question about the terrorists, saying he was “shocked” and “disgusted.” Two sentences later, he entirely changed the subject by moving to his main message – income inequality in America.
Lesson #4: Don’t fall back to your main message when it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand. Don’t mechanically stay “on message.”
Hillary Clinton’s answer to the terrorist attack started off strong, “ISIS cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” But then it went downhill.
“There is no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal, not just military force, which should be used as a last resort, but our diplomacy, our development aid, law enforcement, sharing of intelligence in a much more open and cooperative way – that we can bring people together. But it cannot be an American fight.”
As Max Fischer of Vox wrote, “She rambled incoherently, at some points simply listing things — irrelevant lists of buzzwords were a major theme of the evening — and offered neither policy ideas nor even vague rhetorical themes.”
My take is: Hillary sounded too much like a diplomat, and not enough like a leader, in that 62-word sentence.
Lesson #5: Don’t ramble. Don’t talk over people’s heads. Only 1% of Americans can follow a 62-word sentence.
The worst Democratic response came from former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who “respectfully disagreed” with Clinton and went on to say, “This is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world. And ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.”
Lesson #6: Don’t restate the obvious and then fail to present your own viewpoint.
No matter how you look at the presidential campaign, Donald Trump stands out. As The Guardian headlined after the first Republican TV debate, “Trump was garbled, incoherent – but dominant.”
Trump’s message is unified by fears of people who are unlike him (rich, male, white, successful businessmen). Fact-checkers rate him the worst candidate on truthfulness. Nonetheless, whatever he’s saying, it’s working.
“His message may not be coherent, but it is consistent,” notes the New Yorker.
His fear-driven message is resonating with a subset of Americans:
Fear of Muslims: Asked on CBN if there’s a problem with Muslims, Trump said, “Absolutely, yes. In fact, I went a step further. I said I didn’t see Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center…
“And by the way, many, many, most Muslims are wonderful people, but is there a Muslim problem? Look what’s happening. Look what happened right here in my city with the World Trade Center and lots of other places.”
He’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, a database to track Muslims and surveillance of mosques.
Lesson #7: Avoid faulty generalizations. Don’t tar all members of a group with the actions of a few.
Fear of Mexicans: “The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning … When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.
“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
Lesson #8: Don’t insult your fastest-growing addressable market. Avoid faulty generalizations.
Fear of China: In his campaign announcement, Trump said, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anyone saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal? I’ve beat China all the time. All the time.”
And “I have great respect for China. I have many Chinese friends. They live in my buildings all over the place.”
Lesson #9: Beware bragging and boasting. Don’t attack people and then call them “friends.”
Fear of blacks: “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. I think sometimes a black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that… I’ve said on one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I believe they do have an actual advantage.’’ Source
“And, you know, I have a great relationship with African Americans, as you possibly have heard. I just have great respect for them and you know they like me.”
Lesson #10: Speak from your own experience. Don’t speak for others.
Fear of women: He Tweeted to Ariana Huffington: “@ariannahuff is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.”
On his daughter: “I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” Source
He called Rosie O’Donnell a “pig,” “dog,” “slob” and “disgusting animal.” He said, “She talks like a truck driver, she doesn’t have her facts, she’ll say anything that comes to her mind.”
After Megyn Kelly of Fox News challenged such statements, he attacked her, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” Video
“I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.” Source
Lesson #11: If your opinions about women are that Neanderthal, keep your mouth shut.
Trump’s statements craftily mirror a cross-section of certain Americans’ politically incorrect opinions. So far he leads in polls – where it appears that his understanding of voters’ fears outweighs any needs for logic, a coherent message or a workable plan.
As Ann Wylie notes in the current issue of her excellent newsletter on writing, appeals to fear work. That’s because they are more believable, more memorable and more shared than benefit-based statements.
Lesson #12: Fear trumps logic or facts.
… which brings to mind Walter Lippmann’s observation that “Public opinion is incoherent, lacking an organized or a consistent structure.”
Perhaps a coherent message from politicians is just too much for anyone to expect in an election year.
Lesson #13: People don’t expect much from politicians’ messages. They expect a lot more from your marketing and public relations messages! Make sure your messages are clear, consistent and coherent.
Avoid the many traps lurking around your message:
— The lack of a message
— Irrelevant messages
— Self-centered messages with too much “me.”
To make your message even more powerful in 2016, let us make a 1-page Message Map for you.
As a marketing change agent, I consult with clients, lead content marketing workshops for the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), and write the weekly Simplify Marketing blog.
With experience from Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T, RR Donnelley and Tellabs, I've been named:
- Content Marketer of the Year by the Content Marketing Institute.
- Best Marketer by BtoB magazine.
- A B-to-B CMO to watch by Fierce CMO.