Stop Underestimating People

"The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything."

This is one of the best-known quotes from "the father of advertising," David Ogilvy. And one of the most forgotten.

I was reminded of Ogilvy's philosophy when reading today's column by political pundit Joe Klein. There are a lot of "now he tells us" anecdotes about the 2000 and 2004 Democratic presidential campaigns, whose failures Klein blames on political consultants. Consultants told Al Gore not to talk about the environment. Their research told them swing-state voters didn't care about it. Al Gore wrote a pathbreaking book about global warming in 1992, but in 2000 told voters by his silence that a potential global catastrophe was no longer on his radar screen.

Four years later, consultants told John Kerry to be cautious in addressing Abu Ghraib, because focus-group research strongly suggested voters were in a forgiving mood about torture. John Kerry achieved fame–or infamy depending on your point of view–for accusing American soldiers in Vietnam of atrocities on the battlefield, but by 2004 could not be roused to criticize atrocities committed against defenseless prisoners.

The consultants must have thought their counsel was so wise, so sophisticated. Why didn't it work? Because voters made the connections the consultants didn't think they were capable of making.

Everyone knew Gore was a "green." Avoiding the subject made him appear surreptitious about it. Everyone know Kerry was a controversial war protester in his youth. By not carrying that aspect of his character forward into the campaign, it seemed like Kerry had conceded that critics of his past anti-war stands were right — including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth his campaign was busily trying to discredit. Letting Kerry speak his true mind was a luxury his campaign consultants didn't think he could afford:

"We're going to meet the voters where they are," (Robert) Shrum had told me early in the Kerry campaign, which sounded innocent enough—but what he really meant was, We're going to follow our polling numbers and focus groups. We're going to emphasize the things that voters think are important. In fact, Shrum had it completely wrong. Presidential campaigns are not about "meeting the voters where they are." They are about leadership and character. Mark Mellman, Kerry's lead pollster, figured that out too late. "If you asked people what they were most interested in, they would say jobs, education and health care," he later said. "But they thought the President should be interested in national security."

I'm really not trying to revisit Democratic disasters for the masochistic joy of it. Neither is Klein. He's trying to look beyond the consultant-ad buyer complex. He predicts, or hopes, that in 2008,

(the) winner will be the candidate who comes closest to this model: a politician who refuses to be a "performer," at least in the current sense. Who speaks but doesn't orate. Who never holds a press conference on or in front of an aircraft carrier. Who doesn't assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one major idea, or program, that has less than 40% support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason … but only if those emotions are real and rare. Who isn't averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake.

I don't know if there are any Democratic candidates out there confident enough to blow off high-priced consultants' advice so calmly. To me, the lesson from all this is should go out beyond the political community. Anyone doing PR, marketing or advertising–if you think you're fooling anyone, you're only kidding yourself. If your client has hired you to put one over on the public, try to talk them out of it. If they won't listen — walk away, because you can't succeed, and when you fail, the client will blame you.

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