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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: What's in a Name?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What's in a Name?

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Maybe a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but would it sell?  From John Broder of the New York Times in "Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus," we learn that,
EcoAmerica has been conducting research for the last several years to find new ways to frame environmental issues and so build public support for climate change legislation and other initiatives...

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.
Broder discusses and then links to a New York Times editorial dated March 23, 2009 titled, "Environmental Word Games."  Not surprisingly, Republicans use the same tactics.  The article reads,
Whenever the Republicans find themselves in trouble on environmental issues, the call goes out for Frank Luntz, a respected party strategist. Back in 1995, Mr. Luntz urged the party to soften its language when it became clear that the Gingrich revolution had gone too far in its attacks on environmental law. Mr. Luntz is now making the same point. In a memorandum recently described by The Times's Jennifer 8. Lee, he warns that after two years of regulatory rollbacks, environmental issues have become ''the single biggest vulnerability for the Republicans and especially for George Bush.''

Mr. Luntz's remedy is not to change the policy, but to dress it up with warm and fuzzy words. As in 1995, he says that the problem is one of communication, and that what must be done is to start using comforting words like ''balance,'' ''common sense,'' ''safer,'' ''cleaner'' and ''healthier.''
Broder uses Drexel University professor, Robert Brulle as a foil to take a stab at politicians, an easy and popular endeavor that I recommend. 
Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental communications, said ecoAmerica’s campaign was a mirror image of what industry and political conservatives were doing. “The form is the same; the message is just flipped,” he said. “You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell that. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”

He said the approach was cynical and, worse, ineffective. “The right uses it, the left uses it, but it doesn’t engage people in a face-to-face manner,” he said, “and that’s the only way to achieve real, lasting social change.”
Neither Broder nor Brulle mentioned that politicians often exaggerate their side of an argument.  Read anything on climate by world climate change leader Al Gore, or this article (HT Drudge) describing House Minority Leader John Boehner's claim on the cost of cap-and-trade.  Apparently exaggeration is leadership.  


  1. So pretty much it is just saying things in a different way. It hits a little harder like that. Instead of being so general in saying the environment..."the air we breathe" seems so much more important. It all depends on context and how you say something that depends on whether you are really going to get your word out or not.

  2. Dustin Pierce6/5/09 8:12 AM

    I think that the GOP is shaking in it's boots when they hear the word "enviroment" so they're happy with anyone trying to change the way we talk about "the air we breathe".

    Dustin Pierce
    Chilton ISD

  3. Krislyn Combs6/5/09 4:57 PM

    It is funny to read that the way things are said can be taken in different ways. You are right though its so hard to imagine energy efficiency and not think about giving up something that you think you can't live without but in all generality if you were to say cutting back just a little people wouldn't think it is the end of the world. It makes me wonder what all there is that people are taking wrong when it is something so simple.
    Krislyn Combs

  4. The way people say things, the words, the tone, makes all the difference. With words people can persuade, and even manipulate. In a way, this concept is similar to trading: people trade some words in order to get a return. Just as a person would try and ask an alcoholic to stop drinking, one could say, "Please stop drinking." Or, one could say, "Please, for the sake of your children, please stop drinking." The latter would be much more effective because it connects on a more meaningful way. Anytime a business or group is trying to sell something, they have to find a way to connect to their wanted consumers. All in all, how you say things could in essence benefit you greatly.
    ~Lorena Vargas