Evil wordcraft

      15 Comments on Evil wordcraft
Frank Luntz


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?

15 thoughts on “Evil wordcraft

  1. Mike Remsen

    Evil is the wrong word to describe Luntz. Instead I would say he is a ‘master’ of his trade, with his ability to use language as his primary weapon of changing opinions. And isn’t that a part of the job description for most PR and marketing professionals today? Luntz has simply transformed opinions and emotions through the method of word usage, which is all fairness what everyone attempts to do. His primary target as people know is emotion which is triggered from feeling, thus what a person chooses to feel is their own right and I see nothing wrong with that. It’s not unethical what he is doing but perhaps morally wrong because his phrases deliberately put a lesser value on things which may be considered important.

  2. Kaitlin Simensky

    This type of knowledge to know how to use language to reach your target audiences is what our industry is all about. These are the companies that will get ahead of the competition and receive greater results. I do believe that in some ways Luntz’s attitude about appealing to people’s emotions rather than their intellect is somewhat related to our field. However, there are more layers that must be considered. While PR may sometimes blur the lines, and even in certain instances go beyond what many would deem ethical; Luntz seems to completely throw ethics out the window. Luntz uses the power of words to convince people to often act against their own self-interest, essentially telling lies for the sake of politics. PR sometimes tells halve truths, but I would like to believe that at least on some level we can retain our ethical standards.

  3. blgilmartin

    The fact that Luntz is making up such transparently manipulative euphemisms is perhaps shows that he is not extremely good at what he does. His attempts to manipulate people’s feelings are obvious enough that all of these comments acknowledge it without debating whether he is manipulating or not only wheteher he is doing it ethically. Although it may slip pass a majority of people who are not thinking about it at the time there will always be a group of people who are aware of the intentionally misleading. Once one person notices and begins to draw attention to Luntz’s maniputlation the entire goal has been undermined. I would say that Luntz is not actually an effective manipulator because his manipulation is easily detected.
    To respond to the suggestion that all public relations, marketing, advertising profesionals are in the same business as Luntz is not accurate. The PR person’s job is to ensure that either a truthful message is sent to their publics or that a dissatisfaction in the publics is communicated to the policy makers so as to create harmony between the two groups. It is a two way street not a one way attempt to make only one sides desires be met. PR is not about manipulation, and it is obvious in the case of Luntz that manipulation is an inneffective method, because it is too easily detected by the manipulated. Although I agree that feelings are an acceptable way to communicate with people; using words to intentionally obscure your the facts is unethical.

  4. Caela McLoughlin

    I was one of the students in the class who was somewhat disturbed by what he does. Now, this is not to say that he isn’t extremely talented and definitely knows what he is doing because he does. I just do not think that being in PR is to twist words to make people feel a certain way. When we were talking about focus groups, the main idea is to get people’s initial reactions, which means to give them the facts and see how they react. Not to twist the words around so that people think that something is better or worse than what it is. I am by no means political and definitely agree that he is brilliant in his line of work. I just think that he should not be making sure a certain candidate is using a certain set of words to get votes. I think that it is somewhat unhonest and corrupting the system so that people are forced to feel something or act a certain way they is not the way they normally would if they knew all sides of the story.

  5. Nick Schweers

    I would not call Luntz evil at all; I would say he is talented with his craft and knows how to use language to reach out to his audience. Aren’t PR and marketing professionals doing this everyday? There is no golden rule that states that we must appeal to peoples’ intellect. Reaching them through their emotions probably has a stronger effect anyways, which makes Luntz successful at what he does.

  6. Chrissy Giglio

    I personally don’t find Luntz and his approaches to be evil at all. I instead view him as a very intelligent and strategic man who does his job extremely well. The power of language is extreme and if one knows how to use it effectively then they are very gifted. The order of the words in a phrase or the single use of one particular word can make something sound completely different. Not different as in the meaning itself has changed, but different as in the overall vibe of the phrase has changed. I don’t find his approaches to be unethical since the meaning behind what he is staying remains the same and valid. It is our job to form our own opinions and we have the power to decipher what is being said and how we’d like to interpret it.

  7. Meredith Golden

    Luntz’s tactics are undoubtedly effective, even though some consider them unethical. Simply put, it’s a smart move. Intellectually, a person can debate both sides of any argument, whether it’s “climate change” or the “war on terror.” But in the end, how a person feels about a topic is exactly that, what they FEEL. Targeting those emotions may make people think that Luntz is “unethical,” but most of those people are simply on the other side of the argument. If the shoe was on the other foot, I doubt there would be many complaints from that side.

  8. Thanishap

    I think calling Dr. Frank Luntz evil is extreme especially from a public relations standpoint. Luntz is clearly a hired professional who was put in place to shape messages. It’s his job to shape his clients messages in a positive light. Being a public relations major, I was taught that we are advocates for our clients and as long as the messages are ethical and truthful then we must shape messages to appeal to the masses in a positive light. It is the listeners job to use their brains and interpret the message. In my opinion Luntz is doing a great job and played it smart by appealing to peoples emotions.

  9. prshopgirl2232

    To call him evil, I think is extreme. There is no question that this man is talented and that he knows how to persuade. Being good at his job does not make him evil, it makes him resourceful and effective. I think that this is what scares people, intimidates them and leads them believe that he is evil. We as consumers are subjected to a constant stream of marketing, pr and advertising campaigns and it is our jobs to be aware and sometimes be critical of what we are being exposed to. Luntz has a job to do but so do we. The public is not forced to accept his word jumbles but out of laziness we often do. So maybe we are the evil ones, the ones who are too easily persuaded and shifted. As full transparency is a practice of good business, Luntz’s job is to sugar coat things and its the consumers job to be media literate.

  10. AOkPR

    I have a question for those students who argued that Luntz’s appeal to emotions rather than the intellect is unethical: When was the last time you sat in a public relations or marketing class and were told to appeal solely to the public on an intellectual level? I personally do not recall ever learning that. A huge part of what public-centric professions do is focused on people as whole beings, not as merely intellectual brains; it is up to the public to decipher information and make their own decisions based on what they are given. I believe it is unethical to purposefully leave out integral information that could sway people’s opinions in any way; however, I do not believe that word choice is leaving out any of that integral information that could manipulate anybody’s opinion in any direction.

  11. Steve Koenigsberg

    Exactly Jeff. Two things are paramount in getting the message out. Tell a compelling story and appeal to people’s emotions

  12. samwilbur

    It’s amazing how easily Americans can be persuaded by words or different terminology–even things that don’t exist. Remember death panels? It’s insane. But, regardless Luntz does do a great job at–well–his job. He’s not really lying–he’s just sometimes misleading, but using persuasion incredibly effectively.

    Colbert explored this rather recently and I thought of this right after I read your post:


    He is a master of understanding his audience, as evident through this video, albeit a comical one. And he adds that “you need to keep it simple.” And that’s a huge part of PR, I think and especially so in politics–keeping it simple–so that a person can be directly influenced, and ultimately a mass audience can as well. He also states a candidate should always apologize–it’s one of the best things they can do. He says to do it 3 times:
    1) I’m Sorry
    2) I made a mistake
    3) Forgive Me

    Frank Luntz is a very interesting case study, but it’s almost proven here through satire, that he can be incredibly effective–as stated by you in this post and in his documentary.

    1. jmorosoff Post author

      I saw the Colbert appearance… it was entertaining and revealing. I think the Democrats need to find their Frank Luntz. Maybe he/she’s a Hofstra PR graduate?

  13. Phil Hecken

    Whether or not one agrees with Luntz’ political views and leanings, one must admit he is extremely good at what he does. Language is a powerful tool, and his colorful *renaming* of certain words and phrases is designed to elicit exactly the reactions he is seeking.

    Is he evil? I would argue that all depends upon one’s position on the political spectrum. Regardless, Luntz certainly is effective in his chosen profession.


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