What do ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft Bing, NewsNOW from Fox, AT&T DIRECTV and U-verse all have in common?
They will all be streaming presidential inauguration TV hosted by Tom Hanks.
The programming will be produced by the same Emmy-award winning TV producers who produced earlier pandemic-era political events. It will dust off Obama-era messaging strategists to see if their 2000s-era approach still works.
And the show will consist of lots of celebrities – pop stars, sitcom stars, Hollywood actors, etc. The kind of faces you see on glossy magazines in the checkout line at the grocery store. That’s Entertainment!
Rhetorical question – can US-Americans living out a catastrophic pandemic relate to celebrity entertainers who hardly ever die of COVID and never lose their jobs or homes?
We’ll get to hear from pop superstars Justin Timberlake and John Legend during the inauguration. The last time their names came up was when Ellen Degeneres filmed herself, in her virus-free Malibu mansion, calling them during the pandemic lockdown.
What did she have to say: “Hey, I’m so bored”.
They’re waiting for the world to go back to the way it was. A boring wait, apparently. So now what – spice things up with a victory lap?
Meanwhile, there will be other shows.
The primary alternative show will feature professional propaganda artists like Tucker Carlson mocking this star-studded victory lap. Which is itself great television.
But this show will also question the legitimacy of the election and, thereby, of democracy itself. To make the case, it will broadcast the righteous anger of Trump-Qanon mobs and counter-mobs at various capitols, interspersed with the sort of fake testimony that courts refuted.
This will show will air live on Fox News and its dollar-store imitations, Newsmax and One America News Network.
Meanwhile a real-life show will feature a militarized US capitol, with thousands of soldiers in camouflage fatigue holding machine guns behind concrete walls and razor wire.
The message of the last “show” I mention is that the military now polices US democracy. It’s already etched into the Internet and will be featured on all news channels.
The losing, opposition party’s message will be a twist on that: look how many people are upset about the inaaguration. Therefore, the election was fraudulent. Therefore, why not, per the words of the president’s lawyer, “trial by combat”? Which is kind of like saying democracy itself doesn’t work.
This assault demands a proactive response from the winning party. As they respond, here are the wrong messaging approaches:
- Using the words “Celebrating America” in connection to the inauguration. This is not a time to celebrate. And in this context, America smacks of fake unity – it’d be more honest to just call it “Celebrating the Democratic Party”.
- Having a “primetime special” in the first place to commemorate an inauguration. For one thing, TV is dead. For another thing, entertainment is not appropriate.
- Resurrecting, ‘Hope and Change’ or similarly over-optimistic slogans that won’t resonate.
- Leaning on buzzwords like inclusive and diverse; these words are also stale slogans and there’s little if any truth to them.
- Pointing out that the military supports democracy – this is cold comfort, as Beau of the Fifth Column observes
- Pretending that the low-attendance at the inauguration is solely due to COVID when it’s obviously also due to security. As Ogilvy tirelessly reminded us, your customer is as smart or smarter than you.
Speaking of pretending, what is the worst thing about all of these messaging approaches? They ignore the elephant in the room.
Good messaging isn’t illusion. Good messaging is thinking hard about what is both truthful and useful information – and expressing it elegantly. By the way, this is just as true for a consulting or tech business as it is in politics.
It’s an illusion to ignore massive elephant in rooms – or pull our attention from them with glitz.
If millions don’t believe you won the election, don’t pretend otherwise.
At the same time, be clear that you know exactly why they hold this mistaken belief.
This should be the central message of inauguration: we’re inaugurating the legitimate president, because the election was not stolen.
Secondary messaging should be that there was “The Big Lie”. That we understand why people were led to believe there was election fraud. We call it The Big Lie.
This is also the time to introduce the relevant facts, notably that nonpartisan court decisions favor the fair elections narrative 60-0. But they also tell the story of The Big Lie, of claims so outrageous that most judges refused to even hear cases.
The trick is to blend emotion into this logical argument. It’s always a mistake to leave your emotions out of your message; this is true in the case of your business. In this case, however, it would be a blunder for either side to cede “emotional high-ground” of indignation to the other side.
So the Democratic party should tell The Big Lie story with the same emotion Biden directed at the politicians who refused to wear masks when locked into tight quarters during the capitol riots. He said, “What the hell is wrong with them?”
* * *
I’m not saying you will win over the lunatic fringe with proof and passion. And even among rational but misinformed people, you won’t undo years of propaganda in one evening.
But when a lie gets big enough, you have to address it. Why not do so on the night you’ll have the most reach, especially knowing that your messaging will live on repeat forever on Youtube, where most of us now take in news and opinion.
Messaging isn’t a one-time fix; it’s a marathon.
Footnotes & Errata
- People think TV is dead because, “everyone’s watching Netflix” but it’s YouTube that has replaced TV; more Americans watch YouTube than network TV and Netflix combined; more Americans use YouTube than Facebook ↩