Exposing Sub-Texts in Politicians

Big money came to American presidential contest in 2008, breaking the psychological barrier of a billion dollars and making it the most expensive ever. And, as a result, the wordiest.

The billion-dollar-bankroll stimulated great flows of rhetoric from contenders in pursuit of the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The major party candidates, the funds and the great word mass they support were attracted to the huge honeypot of registered voters. That billion dollars works out to about eight dollars per voter, money for campaign teams to build the candidates’ brands, in other words money for marketing.

The leading 17 contenders included a gaggle of senators and, standing in the wings, a senator/actor. This last should have come as no surprise to anyone. After all a senator is an actor with a captive audience, an unlimited budget and dozens of silent partners.

The main distinction of senators is that they talk about themselves, what they want to be associated with, and the impact they imagine they have, even more than actors do. They are also highly practiced at working in subtexts, those messages within the message, those deliberately unobvious parts of statements they most want remembered.

Like all good pitchmen, the candidates can be expected to follow the first rule of marketing, wherever possible – in their speeches, in their advertising, on their web sites. This rule is: repeat, repeat, repeat. Let me say that again. The first rule of… OK, you get the picture. Because the conscious mind in easily numbed by repetition, subliminal subtexts and buried messages are favored and appear, over and over.

But verbiage wrapped around the candidates’ messages came with lots of emotional filler, zestfully picked up by the media from New York to New South Wales, from Neukölln to New Delhi. With such a big field of candidates and so much verbiage, could anyone escape the verbosity, and glimpse the underlying message?

That brings us to the latest battleground where Big Money Verbiage faces off against Free Web Technology. A number of tools appeared on the Internet before the 2008 election. We found some that could be adapted to make more sense of the wordage. Called “text analyzers”, we used them to do the heavy lifting of extracting subtexts from verbiage. They are far-flung online services like the Topicalizer by Björn Wilmsmann, and the Text Analyzer by Mladen Adamovic, designed for different purposes altogether.

However, applied guerrilla-fashion in an approach I call the “EnglishMojo Subtexting Process”, or ESP for short, we used them to crunch down the rhetoric of the candidates, peel off the excess filler, and have a look at the simple subtexts underneath.

Here’s how our ESP worked: In goes the raw text, copied and pasted from the Internet. We run it through these verbiage processors. Then with a little human intervention we extract the repeated subtexts.

The results can be eye-opening. A politician or his minions can serve up the usual 20 minutes worth of vague polysyllabic, “blah, blah, blah, blah”, and the ESP can cull through the word mass left behind and translate it into “no new taxes” or “he cares” or whatever was the real message he wanted to leave you with.

As a literary investigation, ESP is rough and lacks nuance. But hey, this is politics.

And the advantage was knowing with seconds what a candidate was really aiming at your head. Imagine what could happen if candidates were confronted with the messages they’re machines propagated over the course of their campaigns. And imagine doing this without having to swallow and digest the noxious, oversweetened, plumped up word mass!

How do two of the most famous political statements in English fare when analyzed this way? Consider first Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

King’s title promised a look into his vision. If we feed his text into the ESP, what we find is that he kept on message throughout. Most frequently he used the phrase, “let freedom ring”. Next frequently he employed the title “I have a dream”, and also the term “will be able to”.

By modern marketing standards, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a brilliantly executed success. His vision sold mightily to an assembled quarter million March on Washington listeners in front of the Lincoln Memorial statue and to millions more around the world. The message of his dream has become his brand, which has become unforgettable.

On a related theme, but ranking zero on the repeat-o-meter we find Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (you know, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”). Lincoln repeated not one single message in his superb presentation. And maybe that’s because perhaps he wasn’t really marketing anything. His remarks were billed as a minor dedication statement less than three minutes long, on the heel’s of the main orator’s two-hour presentation, which is largely forgotten today.

These two set the standards for presentations in the modern era. On one hand was King’s Baptist preacher repeat-the-message approach. On the other hand was Lincoln’s war-weary make-your-point-and-sit-down approach.

Did the presidential candidates of 2008 measure up? In the next EnglishMojo we use the EnglishMojo ESP to get past their rhetoric and extract their subtexts for scrutiny.

More from Joseph JK . . .