Friday, September 14

Advertising Misstep: MoveOn

The best advertising tends to be the perfect balance of art and science. You can usually spot which campaigns lean too far one way or another by the quality of the message, not the production.

Too much science and the message becomes an exercise in bullet points. Too much art and the ad will become the subject of debate rather than the issue.

MoveOn might know what I’m talking about. For all their clever (not really) shock value in attempting to denounce Gen. David Petraeus, they have only succeeded in shifting the debate from whether or not we need to be in Iraq to whether or not their message is fair and their organization credible. Enough so, even Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) had to put the usual polarized politics aside.

"The ad is distasteful and frankly, below the level of respect that America's commanding general in Iraq has earned,” Reid said in a letter. “No matter whether any senator supports or opposes the war in Iraq, we should all voice recognition and appreciation of Gen. Petraeus' long and distinguished record of service to our country."

As brands are fragile things; not all publicity is good publicity.

Relatively few people can look at the MoveOn ad like Jane Hamsher did in her article in The Huffington Post: “To join with the right and start firing arrows into their backs is both destructive from a movement perspective and displays tremendous naiveté about what it's going to take to end this war.”

She does, and in doing so, demonstrates the true weakness of the MoveOn ad: in or out, black or white, for us or against us. Stand by your “progressive fighters” at all costs. Tow the line. Or, in other words, let’s make a case for polarization.

Around almost every corner, polarization remains a front runner in creating miscommunication. In our country, it continues to distract from solutions because it creates a political environment of distrust and suspicion while offering public spectacle that can be likened to high school debate teams. One team picks “pro” and other team picks “con” (nowadays both sides generally pick “pro” and change the noun).

From a communication standpoint, only one Democratic team seems to have made the mistake of choosing sides as outlined by MoveOn. Hillary Clinton embraced the message as a blunt speaking point for the following day, opening it up for Rudy Giuliani’s team to ask a pointed question: “Who should America listen to … A decorated soldier’s commitment to defending America, or Hillary Clinton’s commitment to defending”

This copy line above is part of a rebuttal advertisement that Giuliani’s team wants to raise money for in order to rebut MoveOn and Clinton. You can see the ad by clicking the copy line on a fundraising page here. It’s not the best ad in terms of political copywriting, but it gets the job done.

Regardless of the issue, the communication lesson is objective: although there are some exceptions, the best messages are those that focus less on polarizing the messengers and more on the issues being discussed. By shifting the message off our presence in Iraq and onto the credibility of someone who was recognized as one of America’s 25 best leaders by U.S. News and World Report, MoveOn buried its anti-war message, made the issue about them, forced would-be allies to distance themselves, and drew at least one candidate into controversy.

If we apply this study to our Fragile Brand Theory, it becomes even clearer where MoveOn went wrong. Rather than stick to the issues, they asked the country to denounce a four-star general or denounce a political action group. The law of gravity, as it applies to our brand theory, suggests that when two brands go head to head (as opposed to point for point), then the one with its collective impressions closest to the middle has more pull and will prevail.

Clinton’s team seems to have missed it. Giuliani’s team seems intent on letting them know it.



Your PR Guy on 9/14/07, 12:12 PM said...

I support the First Amendment. I'm also a public relations coubselor, aspiring scholar and communication manager for a group of financial companies in the Midwest.

Regarless of our distaste for MoveOn's advertisment, we cannot and should not point our fingers and say "naughty, naughty" to the activist group.

This is so, especially in light of all the other underhanded, deceptive communication strategies Republicans, Democrats and countless industries have used. Might I add that Big Tobacco used their "A Frank Statement" plantform for over 30 years to convince millions of people to kill themselves by smoking.

I think all we can (should) do is marvel at the advertisment. Study it for what it is, whether is was effective and decide if we would do the same.

Rich on 9/14/07, 12:40 PM said...

Hey Your PR Guy,

Thank you so much for stopping by and offering comment. I agree that I would be less inclined to make this a political discussion in favor of looking at it from a communication standpoint ( ... "in light of all the other underhanded, deceptive communication strategies Republicans, Democrats, and countless industries " ... since it is err apparent no group is collectively above this, though all have some individuals who are.)

That said, the ad misses because it resorts to kindergarten name-calling when it could have dug deep into the report and pointed out differences of opinion. A clever headline around the facts or differences might have worked ... but as I said, they shifted the argument to "them" as an organization. (Not to mention, the call to action is unclear beyond calling for general disgust).

This happens in advertising all the time, well beyond politics. Too much creativity or shock value will outweigh the relevance of what is to be communicated. Being clever is easy; communicating strategically is not.

All my best,

Rich on 9/14/07, 1:48 PM said...

More Words:

"Mr. Giuliani, a Republican presidential candidate, sought — and received — space in Friday editions of the newspaper for an advertisement in which he praises General Petraeus. Neither the Giuliani campaign nor The Times’s advertising department would disclose the price." — The New York Times

Your PR Guy on 9/14/07, 8:09 PM said...

Oh, yes, I agree that the ad says nothing. Makes no intelligent claim and gives the reader no direction.

I'm reading "The Republican Noise Machine," and -- just using them to illustrate -- Republicans have been using the same kindergarten, playground name-calling tactic for years. Sean Hannity comes to mind. Their strategy has been quite effective.

While some communication professionals govern themselves with a high ethical ideal -- those that squawk the loudest, get heard the most.

Rich on 9/15/07, 8:51 AM said...

Hey Your PR Guy,

Both sides have resorted to it; for every Hannity is a Colmes. They represent the wingnut media makeup that is indicative of our political system. I'm not sure if you have noticed, but sometimes they even feel uncomfortable when they are assigned their respective pro-con positions.

It's not easy as Geoff Livingston and I can attest. Every week we work to find something to disagree about, but mostly end up in the middle or on the same side.

The difference in how it shakes out for us vs. political pundits is indicative to the change in the climate. It used to be finding contrasts between opponents was about researching issues to give voters a clear and distinct choice. More often, it's about the other side.

Going back to this ad, the person it has damaged most is Clinton. On one side, Giuliani is calling on Clinton to retract her statements. On the other side, MoveOn (who you would expect would be appreciative that someone stood behind them) has said they will be watching her votes to see if she really says what she meant.

As for "those that squawk the loudest, get heard the most..." I would agree with that. That's probably why I'm not an A-list blogger. Ha!

Most often, I give up my personal thoughts in favor of discussing something communication beyond the issue. Sure, I know what I think about MoveOn, but that is irrelevant in discussing communication practices.


MJS on 9/17/07, 12:59 PM said...

From a communications standpoint, I actually think it was a huge success. I suspect is unknown to moderates--not anymore.

If the group had dug into the report and included what they found in the newspaper ad it would have been effective to New York Times readers, of whom most (probably) already disagree with the war.

I suspect MoveOn piggy-backed right wing outrage to grab a place on the national stage. Now, when MoveOn issues a press release or makes some kind of public announcement, people won't say, "Who?"

Eventually, the noise obstructing MoveOn's message will fade and the organization can use its new found place on the national stage to spread its message.

Rich on 9/17/07, 5:34 PM said...

Hey MJS,

Meaning no disrespect, but I liken that assessment to arguing that it was a good idea for Britney Spears to stumble around on stage at the MTV Awards.

Sure, we can pretend that all the buzz helped push "Gimme More" up to the top 40, but we'd be delusional to think that the poor performance was somehow better than shocking us with a performance that would have screamed Britney is back.

I also think you underestimate MoveOn's brand awareness, especially in light of the anti-war ads it was running. Not all publicity is good publicity.

But I do appreciate you taking the time to share that persepctive. While I don't agree with it, I'm well aware that many people subscribe publicity above all.

All my best,

MJS on 9/18/07, 7:54 AM said...

Fair enough. I guess we're going to agree to disagree on this one. You are correct, I do subscribe to the PT Barnum notion of "all publicity is good publicity." Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Rich on 9/18/07, 10:27 AM said...

Hey MJS,

It's very fair to agree to disgree. :) BTW, it looks like this one will be ratcheted up another notch on YouTube. (Rodger... add this to your case study.)

Rich on 9/18/07, 10:28 AM said...

As an add on point of interest to the video link...

"Adding comments has been disabled for this video."

Anonymous said...

Bravo, MoveOn!

Petraeus or betray-us yet
Remains a standing question,
Though many it has made upset
As take it for suggestion.

Those people are the kinds with minds
Much slower than molasses,
Or consciences shut down like blinds,
Or heads shoved up their asses.

´Tis not so hard to understand
That not much is imputed--
Yet those who take the underhand
Are easily refuted.

Haters of free-speech; worst of all
Haters of cleverness,
Dishonesty has made you small,
Than our forefathers less.

Bean-counters like Petraeus can´t
Assess the bigger picture,
Like what is moral wrong--so rant
Away, as per your stricture.

Rich on 10/27/07, 12:38 PM said...

i.m. smart,

Well, I'll leave the comment, but this is not an issue post ... it is about communication.

I'm also more inclined to allow anonymous posters who don't respect our largely G rating to take their work elsewhere. Cheer MoveOn if you must, they had every right to say what they wanted to, but in terms of effective communication, it really was not.



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