Print Politics

Marketing Tips From Coulter vs. Edwards

Effective Storytelling Techniques are Key for Campaign Advertising

Narrative-based marketing is the best way to send a message, but it can turn scary if you don't do it right.

Last week, we were talking, here on the blog, about how candidates can weather the long campaign season. One of my colleagues suggested turning campaigns into the subjects of reality TV shows. I don't know if I'd go quite that far with it, but I do like the idea of letting voters in on the stories that drive a campaign forward towards Election Day.

We've been seeing quite a bit of one of these stories in the media this week, based around the campaign of John Edwards. Of course, every good story needs a bad guy, an evil king, maybe, or a dragon, or perhaps an unstoppable, murderous robot from the future. Enter Ann Coulter, spitting her usual villainous breed of extremist rhetoric.

On Monday, on Good Morning America, Coulter says something to the effect of “I wish he (John Edwards) had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot.” She was making a (presumably) funny joke about a discussion that happened a few months ago on Bill Maher. The next day, on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Elizabeth Edwards calls in to confront Coulter about wishing her husband dead.

During the conversation, Elizabeth Edwards makes the point that Coulter is “asking (us) to participate in a dialogue that is based on hatefulness and ugliness instead of on the issues, and I don't think that that is serving (us) or this country very well right now.”

This whole incident makes for a great story, and is, in fact, and excellent example of a well-put-together narrative. It has its villain (Coulter), its champion (Elizabeth Edwards), both of which are representative of larger, opposing forces in the world, and in the end, it has an overarching message about the importance of communicating effectively, particularly when the stakes are high.

This brings me to my point, which is that if you are going to turn your election campaign into a story, you better know how to tell a good story. Telling a good story is at the core of all great advertising and marketing strategies, and it's not as simple as getting a message across. Beyond content, factors like tone and style must be taken into consideration. Without consideration of these factors, the message becomes skewed, and the story is, ultimately, ineffective.

First Example or How Tone Can Create a Villain: In the notorious clip in which our “bad guy,” Ann Coulter, is wishing death upon John Edwards, she is flipping her hair, smiling, chuckling, winking, etc. This is nothing like the studied, serious conversation led by Bill Maher that she is referencing. It is, in fact, what you would call an ineffective blend of message and tone. While Coulter's message is grim and scary, her tone is light and jokey, which is, in large part, what turns her into such a terrifying villain. As a rule, a good character does not discuss their desire for the death of other characters in a story in such a tone, unless the point is that this character is insane.

Someone must correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that Ann Coulter is actually TRYING to come off as morbidly insane. Based on this, her comment fails to hit the mark from a copy perspective, effectively turning her into this story's villain. She actually might have come off better if she had chosen a serious or thoughtful tone, both of which are considered acceptable in political arenas when discussing death. Instead, however, she positions herself as the grinning henchman of the sinister political right. And we all learn a lesson about what bad copy can do.

Second example or How Style Can Create a Champion: The next thing to focus on when crafting an advertising story is 'style.' Like the wrong tone, the wrong style can ruin your story. Elizabeth Edwards is our paradigm of good style in this case. When she calls into Hardball and speaks with Coulter, the first thing she does is evoke her southern heritage and the traditions of politeness and good grace that she lives by. This immediately evokes the empathy of the audience and positions Elizabeth Edwards as “the good guy.”

All great stories have a style like this, whether it be southern charm, gritty Midwest work ethic, or urbane metropolitan savvy. You pick a style for your election campaign, and you go with it. Style is what helps us connect with an audience, convey a memorable message, and keep our overall plot arc coherent.

At this point, you may be wondering: what does this have to do with what I put on my print designs, or how I run my campaign? Can a poster, a banner, or a bumper stick actually tell a story? I say yes, they can. All great print design campaigns start with a message, and as that message grows, it becomes a story. That story, in turn, inspires people to contribute to your campaign and ultimately, to vote for you.

By making sure that style and tone and strong and consistent throughout the development of a campaign story, any candidate can win hearts and minds (or votes and wallets). Conversely, if we ignore narrative tone and style by being overly focused on our message, we can come out looking like villain, no matter how perfectly coiffed our hair, or perfectly tailored our suits.


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