My students recently spent a few minutes watching the PBS documentary “The Persuaders” where they met Dr. Frank Luntz, author of the 2007 bestseller, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” Luntz is a hired gun for many companies, causes and Republican political candidates, and famously changed the American lexicon from “estate tax” to death tax,” “global warming” to “climate change” and “the war in Iraq” to “the war on terror.” He effectively re-named oil drilling “energy exploration” and attached the term “government takeover” to health care reform. Luntz’s latest master stroke was to label big business and wealthy Americans as “job creators,” language that has been quickly adopted by the GOP presidential candidates. Luntz is extremely effective because his political clients use these terms over and over again like a mantra. The wordcrafting works because it’s heavily adopted and becomes the everyday language of pundits, politicos and eventually, much of the public.
Some students were disturbed by Luntz’s statement in the film, “I’m not interested in what people think. I’m interested in how they feel.” Several called his approach unethical and perhaps a little bit evil, noting that it’s wrong to appeal to people’s emotions and not to their intellect. I played devil’s advocate by posing the question, “Isn’t this almost exactly what everyone in our field does?”
Whether we’re in public relations, marketing, advertising or any related profession, we spend our days crafting language designed to motivate people through emotions first and intellect second. Ironically, much of the students’ reactions were based on how they felt about the messages Luntz’s wordsmanship represents. Their emotional response in the classroom was fueled by their own political feelings. I argued that this is exactly what he–and we–get paid to do. Your thoughts?