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Gimmicks Schmimicks

by bdonahue

In Politics, Gimmicks Rarely Produce Results

If you’re following the current Presidential race, you know exactly what doomed campaign I’m talking about if I say, “9-9-9.” It doesn’t take a political insider to automatically think about Al Gore when you hear “lock box.” Or think about wonky Steve Forbes whenever anyone brings up the notion of a flat tax. If you’re a true political geek, you may remember Bob Dole’s 15% across the board tax plan.

Gimmicks have a long relationship with political advertising and branding efforts. But how effective are gimmicks in helping people get elected? The examples above give you a hint.

A gimmick is a device that is meant to trigger an immediate response from the recipient. 9-9-9 = Herman Cain Economic Plan, Flat Tax = Forbes’ plan to simplify the tax code, Al and his Lockbox = protecting Social Security.

Candidates who resort to a gimmick approach are often compensating for a lack in some other quality or campaign advantage …Cain’s lack of organization, Gore’s robotic demeanor, Forbes unfortunately had both.

But why do gimmicks often fail in politics and the politicians who use them?

Gimmicks are fads, attention getters …they are interesting at first but never grow beyond the surface level. A gimmick reminds you of the guy in bar who uses a funny line to pick up a woman. You remember the line, you rarely remember the guy.

In politics, too often gimmicks replace a message or a deeper campaign theme that is supported by effective messaging.

A gimmick may attract headlines and quick attention for candidates; they fail at building a message narrative, or developing an emotional connection with a candidate or issue.

People have difficulty voting for candidates whom they fail to connect with, or fail to visualize them as a fit for the office they seek. The gimmick candidate prevents these connections from being made. Political communication is a much deeper emotional and psychological exercise. A simple plan with a funny name or a repeatable line is not as powerful as someone of something that provokes a feeling that lingers and tugs at you.

Reagan built a persona of courage and hope that connected him with an iconic American frontiersman. Clinton was the everyday man who connected with and deeply understood average people. Bush emoted assurance and resolve – the don’t mess with Texas attitude. These are the connections Americans made.

This year’s presidential election cycle has had plenty of gimmick testing, from Pawlenty’s carbon copy videos, to Huntsman’s bizarre opening ads featuring a rider on a motorbike.

The two candidates left standing put the gimmicks aside. Romney’s momentum is attributed to his slow and deliberate march through the debates. He didn’t enter the race with a big splash. He hasn’t resorted to tongue in cheek plans or quips. Audiences see him as Presidential. He emits the air of a professional businessman, equipped to tackle the failing economy.

Gingrich’s debate performances gave him an opportunity to do what he does best: orate. He’s been sharply on message. He’s been courting the conservatives by connecting on the issues they care about most. Gingrich used each debate as an opportunity to share his vision and attack the Left. His message discipline has proven effective in gaining traction in the lead up to the primaries and caucuses.

The lesson is to leave the gimmicks to the used car salesmen and use the message to move your support.