How to influence people and move products.
WORDS THAT WORK: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear
Frank Luntz C’84. Hyperion, 2007. $24.95.
By Ben Yagoda | In a footnote on page 53 of his new book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Frank Luntz C’84 reports that Jon Stewart “once referred to me as an ‘amoral Yoda’ because I provided politicians with words that work. Stewart told me that part of his job was to be on the other side of language creation, ‘debunking’ the words and messages that people like me create—using ‘death tax’ as a specific example of what he disliked about political discourse. But what he and so many others fail to realize is that as long as the words are accurate, understandable, and credible, they will continue to influence people and move products.”
I guess accurate is the word that does the work here, and on which Luntz’s defense of his enterprise rests. That enterprise began in the early ’90s, more or less after he left a position as adjunct professor of political science at Penn. He went south to Washington, and went on to become the country’s premier consultant on the effective use of language. Although he has had numerous corporate clients, including Rupert Murdoch, FedEx, and the oil industry (which, on his directive, never uses the word oil anymore, energy sounding so much more virtuous and clean), he is most famous as a political-language guru, specifically in the employ of Republican candidates, legislators, and organizations. He massaged the text of the 1994 Contract with America (which Newt Gingrich would have called The Republican Contract with America had Luntz not insisted on dropping the R-word); persuaded Mayor Rudy Giuliani to talk about public safety rather than fighting crime; and, most notoriously, renamed the levy formerly known as the estate tax or inheritance tax.
Luntz writes: “Some object that the term ‘death tax’ is inflammatory, but think about it. What was the event that triggered its collection? You pay a sales tax when you are involved with a sale. You pay an income tax when you earn income. And when you die, if you’ve been financially successful … you may also pay a tax.”
No matter how many times I read that passage, I cannot escape the conclusion that it is a complete and utter crock. You do not pay a death tax when you die. You are dead, so you are not in a condition to pay any taxes at all. Rather, the alive people who have received your assets pay a tax, just as they would if they had received assets from any other source. Luntz’s discussion of the issue in Words That Work skips over this, as well as the facts that surviving spouses pay no tax on inheritance and the first $2 million inherited by anyone else is protected from taxes of any name.
Death tax is indeed understandable. It is also effective: Luntz tells us polls show that while only a narrow majority of Americans support eliminating the estate tax, more than 70 percent want to rub out the death tax. And I suppose it is credible, in the narrow sense that people can be persuaded to believe it. But accurate? Not even close.
The case studies and memos presented in the book, some of which make compelling reading, show that Luntz is good at what he does. He deserves credit for that—as do the less well-known wordsmiths on the left who coined such effectively loaded terms as pro-choice (instead of pro-abortion-rights), affirmative action (instead of racial preferences or quotas) and my personal favorite, homophobic, which deftly equates anti-gay prejudice with irrational fear. What’s irksome about this book is Luntz’s insistence that what he does “is a matter of finding the most appealing and persuasive way to present a preexisting proposition in a more accurate light.”
Once again, accuracy has nothing to do with it. Luntz wasn’t involved in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ads in the 2004 presidential campaign, but he admires them inordinately: The testimony they contained, he writes, were “truly words that worked.” Everything I’ve read about the ads suggests they were filled with distortions, deceptions, and outright lies. Luntz spends seven pages describing their effectiveness, but not a word on their veracity. Similarly, he is a big fan of Lee Atwater’s coinage welfare queens: “By using such a blatantly provocative phrase, Atwater not only shed a negative light on abusers but on the system itself, linguistically paving the way for fundamental welfare reform.” If Luntz doesn’t realize the phrase also aggressively played the race card, he doesn’t deserve his Oxford doctorate. If he is willfully ignoring that fact, he doesn’t deserve the nonpartisan respect he seems to long for.
On a literary level, Words That Work is a sort of hodgepodge. It has a variety of interesting details about how Luntz’s firm goes about its work; a chapter on how to apply its principles in your day-to-day life (when trying to get a table at a busy restaurant, use humor; when trying to get out of a speeding ticket, apologize); a great deal of filler, including a chart explaining “Contemporary Youth Language” (Fo’ shizzle = “An affirmation of a comment or action”); and some breathtakingly dopey statements, such as, “tomorrow morning, when you pick up the newspaper to see an analysis of what makes America tick, know that Chevy’s ‘heartbeat of America’ campaign has led to the resurgence of the phrase.”
It also contains an odd section in which Luntz tries to give a new definition to the adjective Orwellian. The customary meaning of this term, in the words of one dictionary, is “Of, relating to, or evocative of the works of George Orwell, especially the satirical novel 1984 ….”Luntz thinks the word should mean “clear, explicit, uncomplicated political prose,” as advocated by Orwell himself in such essays as “Politics and the English Language.”
I disagree. Orwellian, as traditionally used, has never been as apropos as it is today, when the kind of willful and invidious obfuscation the author envisioned is increasingly coming to characterize public rhetoric and public life. If George Orwell himself ever made a return appearance on this earth, he would give Frank Luntz an earful about death tax. Fo’ shizzle.
Ben Yagoda G’91, professor of English at the University of Delaware, is the author of several books, including When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse.