At a June 12 fundraiser in Maryland, Barack Obama criticized Mitt Romney’s campaign message for being too terse. “You can pretty much put their campaign on a tweet and have some characters to spare,” he declared.
Without getting into the merits of either campaign’s message, his charge is worth exploring. In messaging, political or otherwise, is less really more, or is less less? Is a terse message a bug or a feature?
There are several ways to look at it.
To begin with, America has a long history of successful presidential slogans that could have fit not only in a tweet, but on a bumper sticker, if either had existed at the time:
- Tippecanoe and Tyler too (Harrison, 1840)
- Don’t swap horses in midstream (Lincoln, 1864; Roosevelt, 1944; Bush, 2004)
- Vote as you shot (Grant, 1868)
- Four more years of the full dinner pail (McKinley, 1900)
- He kept us out of war (Wilson, 1916)
- Return to normalcy (Harding, 1920)
- Keep cool and keep Coolidge (Coolidge, 1924)
- Who but Hoover? (Hoover, 1928)
- Happy days are here again (Roosevelt, 1932)
- Give ‘em hell, Harry! (Truman, 1948)
- I like Ike (Eisenhower, 1952)
- I still like Ike (Eisenhower, 1956)
- A time for greatness (Kennedy, 1960)
- All the way with LBJ (Johnson, 1964)
- This time, vote like your whole world depended on it (Nixon, 1968)
- Are you better off now than you were four years ago? (Reagan, 1980)
- For people, for a change (Clinton, 1992)
Glass houses and stones?
Even Obama’s 2008 message — Change we can believe in — and all six different messages his campaign has tried so far in 2012 (the latest being “Forward”) commit the sin of shortness.
So is word count, like gay marriage, an issue his thinking has evolved on?
Could be, and to Obama’s detriment, according to Bloomberg columnist and former Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter, who’s anything but a right-wing extremist nut. Alter characterized Obama’s Cleveland speech, just two days after the bumper-sticker remark, as “long-winded…[H]e lost the thread and the speech was way too long and I think he lost his audience by the end.”
Physical constraints argue for brevity
Before the Internet, there were inflexible physical constraints on marketing communication messages.
Radio and television commercials were 30 or 60 seconds long (and still, for the most part, are). Except on sloppy local stations in markets smaller than Richmond, if you run long, you get cut off. Especially with the syndicated shows’ network feeds and local program automation.
A three-column-by-ten-inch newspaper ad is only 70 square inches. A half-page magazine ad is only a half page. Period.
An outdoor board is huge, but people drive by it at highway speeds, so you have to follow the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Any headline over ten words long is the kiss of death for your message.
The Internet’s “fold” (where the bottom of the screen cuts off the page), by contrast, is not a physical barrier.
Nor, for paying advertisers, is the Twitter 140-character limit, as of this month.
But for effective communication, they might as well be.
So do psychological constraints
Web pages, with their capacity for infinite scrolling, let your message run on for ever and ever.
But just because you post a lot of words, that doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to pay attention to them.
In broadcast (including cable), viewers and listeners can absorb an average of 2.5 ideas per minute.
In print, the most-noticed ad gets ignored by 54% of readers.
Online, 44% of content extending below the fold is totally ignored because visitors can’t be bothered scrolling there.
What’s more, even if your audience does see, read or hear your message, there’s no guarantee it’ll sink in. People are bombarded with just too many other messages to pay attention.
Every American man, woman and child is exposed to an average of 1,800 sales messages a day. That’s 112.5 per hour, 1.9 per minute — or one message every 32 seconds. How many of the sales messages you saw or heard the past day do you remember? The past hour? (That’s why so many are repeated so much.)
Librarian Thomas Washington argues that the constant barrage of information — commercial, political and otherwise — has changed the way people process it.
“The pursuit of knowledge in the age of information overload is less about a process of acquisition than about proficiency in tossing stuff out,” he wrote. “By necessity, we spend more time quickly scanning manuals, king-size novels, the blogosphere and poems in the New Yorker than we do scrutinizing their contents for deeper meaning.”
The same holds true for long, subtle, nuanced political campaign messages — and it always has, regardless of medium.
Trial summation vs. elevator pitch
“[W]hen it comes to the core message that each candidate is trying to get across in TV ads and campaign appearances, Romney has boiled it down to a simple argument,” Michael Finnegan reports in the Los Angles Times. “Obama has not… [His] counter-argument is layered with nuance and complexity.”
“Obama’s overly-complicated reelection message,” agrees Alana Goodman at the Commentary Magazine blog, “actually necessitates…brutally long, technical, lawyerly speeches — and that’s a big problem when his opponent has what amounts to a straightforward elevator pitch.”
“Obama may have this wonderful case that he can make in a courtroom against Romney,” says Republican ad maker Don Sipple. “But campaigns are not conducted in a courtroom.”
Outside the courtroom, “[s]implicity is important,” Princeton University political science professor Julian Zelizer explains. “A powerful message has to be self-explanatory.”
John C. Green, who teaches political science at the University of Akron, concurs. “The electorate tends to respond to clear messages,” he says. “And the electorate generally doesn’t do as well in interpreting nuance.”
If you’re an advertiser and not a political candidate, substitute “consumer” and “target audience” for “electorate.”
Whatever you’re selling, you have to have the one most important benefit-oriented message and boil it down to an elevator pitch. Otherwise, your product or service is in deep marketing trouble.
Because if you can’t state your message concisely, you probably didn’t have one to begin with. And you’ll lose your audience by the end.