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Candidates' use slogans and bromides to woo us
San Francisco Chronicle


June 12, 2008

American voters, prepare yourselves for what could be the first $1 billion presidential campaign in American history -- a high-stakes sales job for the ages.

But according to experts in the world of marketing, sales and communications -- weighing in on the opening salvos in the five-month long race for the White House -- both candidates need to up their games.

Republican John McCain, the presumed GOP contender, has already formally begun his sales pitch to the millions of Americans who can help him win the presidential campaign.

He appeared last week with an eye popping -- or headache-inducing, as some critics complained -- forest green backdrop proclaiming him, multiple times, to be "A Leader We Can Count On." It was a clear jab at his presumed Democratic rival Barack Obama's slogan, "Change We Can Count On."

McCain also unveiled what MSNBC and other media outlets say may be a test for his coming presidential campaign slogan: "Reform, Prosperity and Peace," a slogan Steve Cone, author of "Powerlines: Words that Sell Brands, Grip Fans and Sometimes Change History," pronounced "dead on arrival."

"If you like platitudes, you'll love those three words," he scoffed. "Who isn't for them? And who even remotely believes any will happen anytime soon?"

Obama's mantra of "Change We Can Believe In" -- and the latest slogan for his current economic tour, "Change That Works for You" -- both rely on an overused concept, Cone said. But they do one trick very well, he added: "With the media bombardment, it's more important than ever to show a personality and an attitude that comes through in a few words that are spot-on."

Political communications consultant Ruth Sherman, author of "Get Them to See It Your Way, Right Away: How to Persuade Anyone of Anything," said the Arizona senator's public communications style also hasn't made the grade.

"Lousy. Awful. Horrible. Terrible," she said, asked recently to assess the Republican's speaking approach. "He used the word 'exigencies' in a recent speech. Come on, 99 percent of the people don't even know what that means."

McCain's speeches are "beautifully written for the eyes -- but not for the ear," Sherman said. "The words are too big, the sentences are too long and too filled with clauses. They're speeches from the last century -- when they didn't have TV and people were listening on the radio."

Sherman thinks the strength of his Democratic competitor on the public speaking front will make it even tougher for McCain. "We have been starved for eloquence from political candidates for years," she said. "Obama (has) the ability to read a prepared speech and do it in a way that creates an illusion that he's not reading it ... with the words and language that move people.

"Even (Bill) Clinton and (Ronald) Reagan, as good as they both were, were not near to his level," Sherman said.

But Obama has his own Achilles heel, she said. "He hasn't done well on debates ... and there's a warmth missing" in those big speeches, she said.

McCain, on the other hand, has shown a talent for self-effacing humor and directness, Sherman said: "He doesn't pull punches ... and people want to see that."

Both Cone and Sherman note that in a YouTube age, marketing and communication skills -- reaching the masses with a message, much like Coca-Cola or Apple does -- are more important than ever.

And efforts to find the right mix often evolve during a campaign, as President George W. Bush's many salesmanship efforts -- most of them now forgotten -- illustrate.

In 2000, Bush's campaign slogan touted him as the "Compassionate Conservative," and then "A Reformer with Results." Bush was then sold as offering "A New Approach" and as the man who could provide the head-scratching "Prosperity with a Purpose."

That later shifted into a campaign urging voters to "Change the Tone," then promising "Real Results for Real People."

Many pundits, watching his rapidly morphing campaign, predicted that Bush -- a folksy, informal communicator -- would be no match for the more cerebral Democrat, former Vice President Al Gore. Most predicted he would be eviscerated in their one-on-one debates.

Fast forward: Bush is now at the end of his second White House term. Sherman said that's in part because he has continuously reinforced a unique, consistent personal style that connected with voters.

"He was the guy next door -- and only one candidate gets to be the guy next door," she said. "He was photographed clearing brush in jeans on his ranch and driving a dusty pickup."

"You can't imagine Obama doing that, so he'll have to develop his own image," Sherman said.

Cone said crafting an image depends partly on developing campaign messages that "positively reinforce" the personality of the candidate in a way that's memorable -- as Reagan's iconic commercial tagline, "It's Morning Again in America," did so well.



E-mail Carla Marinucci at cmarinucci(at)
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