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For years the Democratic candidate was the one that smiled; the Republican candidate was the one that was angry.  And all that began to change in 1994, and finally came to fruition in 2000. Now it's the Democrats who are angry and the Republicans who are hopeful.

What are you measuring with the dial technology? [A mechanism Luntz uses whereby people in a focus group register their moment by moment responses to a speech or presentation.]

It's like an X-ray that gets inside your head, and it picks out every single word, every single phrase [that you hear], and you know what works and what doesn't. And you do it without the bias of a focus group. People are quiet as they're listening, and they're reacting anonymously. The key to dial technology is that it's immediate, it's specific, and it's anonymous.

It's so immediate, it feels instantaneous.

But it is, because politics is instantaneous. Politics is gut; commercials are gut. You're watching a great show on TV, you now come to that middle break, you decide in a matter of three seconds whether or not you're going to a) flip the channel; b) get up; or c) keep watching. It's not intellectual; it is gut.

A corporate consultant, pollster and political consultant to Republicans, Luntz's specialty is testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate. In this interview, he explains what it takes to communicate a message effectively, shares some of the advice that he gives clients, and explains why his testing and field research seeks words that move people to act on an emotional level: "It's all emotion. But there's nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional. When we are on vacation, we are not rational; we are emotional. When we are happy, we are not [rational]. In fact, in more cases than not, when we are rational, we're actually unhappy. Emotion is good; passion is good. Being into what we're into, provided that it's a healthy pursuit, it's a good thing." This interview was conducted on Dec. 15, 2003.

Is it the same for political decisions about power companies and politicians, though?

We decide based on how people look; we decide based on how people sound; we decide based on how people are dressed. We decide based on their passion. If I respond to you quietly, the viewer at home is going to have a different reaction than if I respond to you with emotion and with passion and I wave my arms around. Somebody like this is an intellectual; somebody like this is a freak. But that's how we make up our minds. Look, this is about the real-life decisions of real-life Americans, who to vote for, what to buy, what to agree with, what to think, how to act. This is the way it is.

You think emotions are more revelatory than the intellect for predicting these decisions?

80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it's something that's inside you. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that's what I need to understand.

And this technology can get at that?

The great thing about dial technology is you can get a small response on the dial, or you can get a huge jump. You watch with your own eyes: At some points, the lines are way up at the top of the screen or even out beyond. People were practically breaking their dials in agreement at certain points, and at other points, they were flat. It measures intensity. And if you want to understand public opinion, if you want to understand public behavior, if you want to understand the way we operate as Americans and as humans, you've got to understand that one word: intensity.

It can be anything, then, that you're selling.

I'm not going to let you twist the words, because if I say to you that you can sell a politician the way you sell soap -- and it may even look that way from the outside -- that says to Americans that they shouldn't respect politicians or soap. It really isn't that way. The way you communicate an idea is different than the way you communicate a product. However, the way you measure [the response of the public in both instances] is quite similar. And the principles behind explaining and educating the product or the elected official is similar, even though the actual execution of it is very, very different.

Are there different techniques you use when working with politics versus corporations?

The technique is a little bit different because politics and corporations are a little bit different. But in the end you're still using the same focus groups; you're still using the same dial technology; you're still using the same quantitative data; you're still doing split samples where you ask half a sample one way and the other half a different way. You're still asking and re-asking the questions. You're still showing them visuals to see what they like the best, and you're still showing them or having them listen to audio track to see how they respond. So the actual techniques are the same, but how they are applied is different. And that really is the separation; that's the differentiation between politics and the corporate world.

Was there a eureka moment, watching the responses of these people to the power company's ideas, where you figured out what really worked?

The eureka moment is two reasons why the output-based standard should be adopted: common sense and accountability. Input-based standards don't encourage energy diversity; they don't create any incentives; they don't produce solar, hydro, nuclear. As a result, companies are actually penalized if they use the cleanest fuels, and it doesn't make sense. It's not substance; it's language. And when they heard the language that they wanted to hear and they were able to apply it to an idea that at least they were open to, you watched a marriage of good communication and good policy. That was the eureka moment: I watched people nod their heads; I watched them look to each other, and they were willing at this point to fight for this position. Now I'll be able to walk to this electricity company on Monday and be able to say to them, "Your policy makes sense, and here's the language to explain it."

And the amazing thing was, it explained a very complicated policy. That's the job of language; that's the job of English. This is not about politics; this is not about selling soap. This is taking very traditional, simple, clear-cut words of the English language and figuring out which words, which phrases to apply at which opportunities, which times.

So what will you say at that Monday meeting?

On Monday I will sit down with a Washington representative of Florida Power & Light and I will tell him that what he wants to do, his goal for his company, is the goal of America; that if he uses this language to explain his principles and his policies, not only will the company benefit, but the public will be appreciative of what they're trying to do. This is a good company, this is a clean company, but it's got all the baggage of every other electric company, of every other power company. We as Americans assume that big companies are bad, and big power companies are even worse. This language, what we saw tonight, is a demonstration that a single company can differentiate itself, can improve its public image.

You believe language can change a paradigm.

I don't believe it -- I know it. I've seen it with my own eyes. I have seen how effective language attached to policies that are mainstream and delivered by people who are passionate and effective can change the course of history. I watched in 1994 when the group of Republicans got together and said: "We're going to do this completely differently than it's ever been done before. We are going to prove to the American people that we are different." And so instead of a platform, instead of a policy, instead of a mass of different issues and policies, they came up with a "contract," because a contract is different. A contract says that it is a legal document. It says that you put your name on it, and it says that there is enforcement if you don't do it. The word "contract" means something different than "platform." Every politician and every political party issues a platform, but only these people signed a contract.

Was that your idea?

The concept of it was hatched in Salisbury, MD, at a Republican retreat. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to do a presentation about how the American people didn't trust politicians in general and, quite frankly, didn't trust Republicans in particular. And Newt Gingrich was there, and he listened to the presentation, and he said: "We have to do it differently in this election. We have to find a way to communicate that takes all of these policies that we believe in, that the Democrats don't, and articulates that difference. How can we do it?" I presented at that presentation a proclamation. I got the idea from a Massachusetts campaign I was involved with. Gingrich saw that, and he came up with the phrase "contract."

I didn't create the "Contract with America;" I was the pollster for it. I said, "If you're going to do a contract, you've got to make it a contract." For example, "Keep this page to hold us accountable" -- that did not exist in the original document. I insisted that that be added, because they wanted to know that you could actually hold these guys accountable. One of the things that you have trouble with politicians, particularly in Washington, is when you get mad at them and you can't touch them; you can't punch them; you can't yell at them. This accountability says, "I can really demand that they do what they promise."

This sentence was the one that I had the most trouble keeping in this final document: "If we break this contract, throw us out. We mean it." When has a politician ever said, "If I don't come through with what I promise, boot me"? I said: "You need that sentence in there, and you need it at the very bottom of the document. People will read the top, and they read the bottom, and only if they believe in the top and the bottom will they actually read the text, will they read the substance." This is the enforcement clause, and this is what told people that this was for real.

It's not the "Republican Contract with America," because in 1994, as it is today, Americans don't want partisanship. So you will notice that there are mentions of the word "Republican," but I did not want it in red; I did not want it as the lead line that people would see because it was too overtly partisan. Part of my job is to teach subtlety. I may not be a subtle person -- I'm pretty loud and outspoken -- but so often subtlety, the quiet voice, actually communicates.

"We listen to your concerns, and we hear you loud and clear." [The contract] is responsive. That's what the public was looking for back in 1994: a politician who was responsive and responding to them. And all of this language was all tested to make sure it would be effective. The whole document is filled with listening, with responsiveness, with accountability.

Who hired you?

The Republican National Committee hired me, and they hired me because they wanted someone who could look members straight in the eye and tell them the truth. There's a problem with political polling in that you have so much pressure to do what your client wants you to do and say what your client wants you to say. I've never felt that pressure. I am independent of the political parties. I came up outside that structure so that I could tell these members: "This document is going to work. People are going to believe you." And they would believe me because they knew that I was not making money from it.

You must admit that language can cloud as well as clarify.

If it doesn't describe what it's selling, then it is a very poor descriptor. If you've got a bad product, you shouldn't be selling it. And people like me have to have the discipline only to work for clients, corporations, political people, products, services, networks that we believe in and we want to see succeed. I don't believe that good language can obscure a bad product.

What about replacing "global warming" with "climate change?"

What is the difference? It is climate change. Some people call it global warming; some people call it climate change. What is the difference?

Look, for years, political people and lawyers -- who, by the way, are the worst communicators -- used the phrase "estate tax." And for years they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it because the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a death tax, because you're taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It's the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is. But they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I argue that is a clarification; that's not an obfuscation.

The language of America changed with the election of Bill Clinton, because with all due respect to my friends on the Republican side, Bill Clinton is the best communicator of the last 50 years. He felt your pain. Now, I'd argue that he caused your pain, but at least he felt it while he was causing it. When Bill Clinton spoke, his words were so good, and they were spoken with such passion. And that biting of the lower lip and the squinching of the eyes -- you just couldn't turn away. Bill Clinton made Frank Luntz because Bill Clinton discovered the power and the influence of words. Now, I'd like to think that I apply them to clients, to philosophies, to products and services and corporations that I believe in, that are good. I don't argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it's up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire; fire can heat your house or burn it down.

There are words that work, that are meant to explain and educate on policies that work, on products that work, on services that work. I'm not going to ever try to sell a lemon. I don't do that. I work for pharmaceutical companies because my dad was kept alive for a long time on medications thanks to companies like Pfizer. I work for a company like Federal Express because it allows me to get my packages there the next morning. It's a wonderful, innovative corporation. I work for a company like Merrill Lynch because I believe in the financial services and the quality of the product.

I believe in the people who work at the corporations that I work for, and the political people. The best example is Rudy Giuliani. What have I done that's wrong if I provide someone like a Rudy Giuliani or a corporation like a Pfizer language that helps them explain or educate? I've simplified the process for them which allows them to explain. What did they say in there [in the focus group]? They kept coming back to it again and again: What they want from their elected officials, from the CEOs, from the elite of America is clarity. They said it again and again: "Be clear with us. Be straight with us. Common sense; clarity; down the road, look us straight in the eye." That's exactly what I do. I help them do that.

Talk to me about the Healthy Forests Initiative of President Bush. Isn't calling it "Healthy Forests" obfuscating the fact that it entails keeping the forests healthy with widespread logging?

Yes, the Bush administration benefited from the phrase "healthy forest." But what do we know as a fact? If you allow this underbrush to subsume the forest, to get so thick that you can't walk through it, you can't get through it, if you don't touch a twig or a tree and you say, "Oh, let Mother Nature deal with it," then you get these catastrophic forest fires that we saw in Arizona, Colorado and in California. The Native Americans, they know how to thin a forest, and yes, they do take trees out, and what happens? A fire burns, and it stops right where that thinning process took place. But thanks to environmentalists who are extreme and radical in their approach, who say that we must not touch anything at any time in any way, we lose thousands, thousands, hundreds of thousands of acres of forests and all the wildlife that was inside it. And they don't come back again. It takes generations for it to regenerate. So don't tell me about language, because "healthy forests" actually is what it means. And you have to understand the policy, and you've got to understand the product if you want to be able to communicate it. You can't just approach it naively.

Is there a line you won't cross in the creative use of language?

You cannot lie ever, because a lie destroys the credibility of the product, and credibility is more important than anything. Credibility's even more important than clarity. They have to believe you before they will listen to you. So you can't lie. This is an interesting line, because in my own life, in some of the things I've worked for, I get angry. I am a proponent of the pharmaceutical industry. I believe in these heart medications and these anti-cancer drugs. I'm a supporter of a very famous medication right now, OxyContin, because I think that this is a miracle drug which allows people to get through the day. And this is a medication that some people want to see taken off the market. There are all sorts of lawsuits. I believe that there are things worth fighting for. I believe that there are things worth explaining and educating, even if it takes months or years. The only thing I don't believe in is lying. Beyond that, you can use almost anything. You can use emotion. It is acceptable to bring someone to tears if it explains to them in an emotional way why a product, a service, or a candidate is the right person, is the right thing to do.

Do facts matter?

Of course facts matter. And what we do -- and you watched it here -- is to give them accurate facts and see which facts matter. My point is that when you're talking issues like the environment, a straight recitation of facts is going to fall on deaf ears, and that industry has been very ineffective. Even by using that word "industry," people think of smokestacks. So often corporate America, business America, are the worst communicators because all they understand are facts, and they cannot tell a story. They know how to explain their quarterly results, but they don't know how to explain what they mean.

I don't understand why people whose entire lives or their corporate success depends on communication, and yet they are led on occasion by CEOs who cannot talk their way out of a paper bag and don't care to. I know some CEOs who are outstanding communicators, and those individuals have a much better time with shareholders, have a much better time with the media, and, most importantly, with their consumers and the general public, because they know how to explain the benefits; they know how to put things in context. But there are so many CEOs that only know how to talk about numbers. Numbers don't mean anything. You talk about billions and tax procedures and all sorts of acronyms, and the only people who understand that are government bureaucrats and accountants. Americans don't want to hear the language of accountants; they want to hear the language of teachers and social workers.

Do you think Republicans do this better than Democrats?

That is brand new. When I started in this business, everybody said the Democrats were the better communicators because they sounded like social workers, and Republicans were awful because they sounded like morticians. In some cases. they actually dressed like morticians. That has changed over the last 10 years. Bill Clinton brought the change in the Democratic Party, and George W. Bush brought a significant change in the Republican Party: that it was not enough to have a superior policy, or it was not enough to have all the facts at your fingertips; it became essential that you be able to communicate that on a one-to-one basis, as individuals on a personal level rather than a philosophical or ideological level.

There are people still in the Republican Party that I believe practice the communication of anger, of disappointment, of regret, of pain, of sorrow, of suffering. That's not what the American people want to hear. For 20 years, the Democrats were effective at the communication of hope and things that are positive. I asked Republicans at one point to do this little test, to turn down the television set in a debate between Republicans and Democrats, just look at the two individuals -- which one would you want to hang out with? Which one would you want to have a beer with? Which one would you want as your uncle, or who would you want to hang out with at Thanksgiving? For years the Democratic candidate was the one that smiled; the Republican candidate was the one that was angry. Now, there are always exceptions to this, and I'm sure you can come up with 10 of them. But basically, Republicans practiced the politics of anger, and Democrats practiced the politics of hope. And all that began to change in 1994, and it finally came to fruition in 2000. And now it's the Democrats who are angry and the Republicans who are hopeful.

Who else were the visionaries?

The change in Republican language began with Newt Gingrich in 1994, and while much of his communication still came across as angry and partisan, when Newt was speaking about policy and not talking about those who opposed him, there was none better, and there has been none better. Newt Gingrich had the ability to explain a very complicated process in very clear-cut, common-sense ways, unlike anyone I've ever seen. He explained the difference between taxing and spending. He explained the difference between investment and savings. He explained the difference between a weak foreign policy and a strong one. This is a guy who knew how to articulate a philosophical point of view in a way that just made sense. And if it wasn't coming from Newt Gingrich, you believed it; you absolutely supported it. The problem with Gingrich was he was too angry in some of his communication.

So what we needed was someone with that level of explanatory ability with a gentle heart and a gentle soul, and that's where George W. Bush came in. The Bush that we know now is not the Bush that ran for election in 2000. The one who ran in 2000 talked about education; talked about Social Security; talked about a kinder, gentler conservatism; talked about an inclusive conservatism. And it's exactly what the public wanted.

And you compare that with Al Gore. The Democrats became the party of the cold and the aloof. And in 2004, you look at Howard Dean and John Kerry and to a lesser extent Dick Gephardt; the Democratic Party is now the party of anger. I know that this is what happens when you're an opposition party, but that's not what Republicans did in 1994 or 2000. In '94 they offered a "contract." They offered something positive, and people voted for it. And in 2000 they offered a change, an alternative to Bill Clinton; people voted for it. George Bush attacked Al Gore a lot less than Gore attacked Bush. And now in 2004 the Democrats are making the same mistakes. We don't want our messages screamed at us. We don't want to be yelled at.

How important is keeping the consistency of the message in political language?

The advantage of working for a corporation is that it has only one message, because a product or a service doesn't speak; it's just there, and you can advertise it. The challenge in working in politics, particularly if you're working for a political party, is that everyone's a messenger. I think the best example of this, frankly, is Israel, where you can have 20 members of the Cabinet, and they've got 68 messages between them, because among the 20, all of them think that they're prime minister or will be prime minister or should be prime minister or hate the person who is prime minister. And when you have all these people saying things in a different way, nobody hears anything.

I've got a certain rule that I always teach my staff: It's not what you say; it's what people hear that matters. I may respond to you effectively, but if you edit it in such a way that they only hear the negativity of what I do, then that's all they're going to know. And so they're going to conclude that my profession isn't an honorable profession. And that's why how I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say.

[Regarding consistency,] there's a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you've just got to keep repeating, because we hear so many different things -- the noises from outside, the sounds, all the things that are coming into our head, the 200 cable channels and the satellite versus cable, and what we hear from our friends. We as Americans and as humans have very selective hearing and very selective memory. We only hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

Republicans use think tanks to come up with a lot of their messages.

The think tanks are the single worst, most undisciplined example of communication I've ever seen. Cato [Institute] still calls it the "privatization of Social Security." Heritage [Foundation] did so until a couple of years ago. Every time you use the words "privatization" and "Social Security" in the same sentence, you frighten seniors, and more of them turn against you. This is a specific and perfect example of the intellectual goo-goo heads who are more interested in policy than they were in success. Changing the word from "privatize" to "personalize," which is the work that we had done, they wouldn't accept it, because to them it was selling an idea short.

They would rather communicate their way and lose the issue than communicate in a sensible way and win. The fact is, ideology and communication more often than not run into each other rather than complement each other. Principle and communication work together. Ideology and communication often work apart.

Tell me about your work for Rudy Giuliani.

Rudy Giuliani hired me because I was recommended by his political consultant and because I love baseball. I hate to admit this, but I brought my baseball card collection to show him, because I'd heard he was a fanatic Yankee fan, and I figured this would be a way that we could bond. We ended up talking for 22 minutes. My whole interview with Rudy Giuliani in 1993 lasted for 22 minutes, and at least 19 of the 22 minutes was focused on baseball. So I don't know if he got it right or wrong; all I know is that this was a guy who understood the value of words and understood the value of language, but even more than that, it's the power of personality. You know, you have asked me what matters in research and how do you apply different components. What matters most in politics is personality. It's not issues; it's not image. It's who you are and what you represent. And this guy, from the very beginning of his administration, even if people disagreed with what he was doing, they trusted him to do it, and even if they didn't like him, they respected him.

My job as a pollster is to understand what really matters. Those levers of importance -- sometimes they're called levers; sometimes they're called triggers. What causes people to buy a product? What causes someone to pull a lever and get them to vote? I need to know the specifics of that. And in politics, more often than not, it's about the personality and the character of the individual rather than where they stand, and that's exactly the opposite of what your viewers will think.

Did you help him?

Part of the task is using language and using speeches and using photo ops and using the power of campaign to convey a specific message. And my job in '93 and '97 was to explain to the campaign what the public wanted and to help explain to the public that that's exactly what he was offering. A pollster, a marketer, someone who is the explainer of public opinion, has the ability to inform somebody like Rudy Giuliani [of] what really matters to the public, and so that makes Rudy Giuliani an even better candidate.

Can you talk about how you've applied your approach to the use of language to corporate America?

I've done reasonably well over the last 10 years because I took the strategy of language and politics and applied it to the corporate world, which has never been done before. Up to this point, the only people who ever communicated were those little 30-second characters, the little Alka-Seltzer guy or the StaPuf, whatever his name is.

And were your ideas well received in corporate America?

Oh, you have no idea. I am amazed at how eager the CEOs of the biggest companies are today to communicate as effectively as possible, to employ the skills and the language of what you saw right here earlier. They want to know that they can talk to a shareholder one-on-one, not just through their head but also through their heart. They want to know that they can reach their consumer not just on an intellectual basis, but on an emotional basis. In fact, I'd argue that CEOs, with all the corporate scandals that have taken place, are more interested in effective communication than even political people, because corporate people are interested in the bottom line, and so for them good words, good phrases, good presentation matter more than anything.

If we're getting information from 200 cable channels, if we're talking to 200 people a day, there are so many different messages that are cluttering our heads. It's the same way in corporate America. If a CEO speaks and no one hears it, it doesn't matter. And so they're looking for people like me to help them cut through the clutter, to help them explain and educate why their product or their service or their company is better. And the challenge for CEOs is that they generally came up through the ranks by being good numbers people. And I have seen 99 out of 100 cases, if you're a good numbers person, you're a bad language person.

What kind of reception do you get from their marketing departments?

There are two people that tend to beat up on me. One are the ideologues, particularly in the far left or the far right, who don't want to communicate to everybody; they don't want to be loved; they don't even want to be respected. They want to say it their own way, and they don't like people like me who challenge the way they communicate their policies, their platforms or their principles. The other people who beat me up are the market research people in some of these big companies, because they don't understand language.

The problem with the job and the service that I provide is that I have to be involved in it. I can't write a memo from somebody else's focus group. I can't do this from traditional polling of 1,000 people on the telephone. I have to be able to hear it. Traditional market researchers are cold and calculating and scientific. In this business of language, you have to have a heart, and you have to have emotion, and you have to be willing to become what you are studying, no matter what it puts you through.

So the main point is emotion.

It's all emotion. But there's nothing wrong with emotion. When we are in love, we are not rational; we are emotional. When we are on vacation, we are not rational; we are emotional. When we are happy, we are not [rational]. In fact, in more cases than not, when we are rational, we're actually unhappy. Emotion is good; passion is good. Being into what we're into, provided that it's a healthy pursuit, it's a good thing.

But if emotion is the main point, why go for the words?

Because the words provide the emotions.

Words are keys to the emotions?

Yeah. You call it keys, but my job is to look for the words that trigger the emotion. Words alone can be found in a dictionary or a telephone book, but words with emotion can change destiny, can change life as we know it. We know it has changed history; we know it has changed behavior; we know that it can start a war or stop it. We know that words and emotion together are the most powerful force known to mankind.

What new directions do you see for market research like yours?

Part of what market research and the understanding of language that has not been exploited sufficiently is actually in the courtroom. There are jury consultants and there are message consultants for trials, but not to the degree that it's been applied to politics and the corporate world. This is where people are going next, and frankly, this is where I'm going next. There's a lot of money with a lot of big law firms that have a tremendous amount at stake by getting the right language to convince the right jury that my client is either innocent or that the opposition is guilty.


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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