Romney Can Create Jobs: Etch A Sketch Sales Jump 1500%. Eight Reasons The Gaffe Will Endure

The political gaffe of the year is now the gift that keeps giving, literally.

On Wednesday, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom was asked about how his boss’s politics might change after he gets the nomination. “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said, “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

As the columnist Michael Kinsley’s defined it, “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.”

How unintentionally powerful was Fehrnstrom’s metaphor? NPR reported this morning:

The high-profile gaffe wasn’t good for Romney.  It was good for Etch A Sketch. Sales increased by 1,500 percent and Ohio Art, the company that owns the toy, saw its stock price nearly double.

So that should put an end to the debate about whether Romney can create jobs or not.

More seriously, I’m interested in the gaffe for two reasons. First, climate and energy are two of the major areas where Romney has shaken his position and started again — see “Another Etch A Sketch Moment: In 2006, Romney Supported High Gasoline Prices To Discourage Consumption.”

Second, my forthcoming book on rhetoric and communications examines effective messaging, political gaffes, and the role of the figures of speech.

It seems clear already that this gaffe will have legs, as they say.  Here’s why:

  1. As columnist Chris Cillizza explains, “Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate.” The Etch-a-Sketch gaffe “is likely to linger in the electorate it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win.”
  2. This gaffe comes before the nomination fight has been settled, which means it will be used by both sides — Democrats and the conservatives who don’t trust Romney. Indeed, the use of the Etch a Sketch gaffe by Romney’s opponents will make it easier for Obama to use it in the fall.
  3. It is a metaphor, and nothing is more powerful in political messaging than a metaphor, good or bad. Artistotle wrote, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” Modern cognitive research confirms this: “Studies reveal that virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor.” Few things endure like a metaphor: Churchill’s “iron curtain” metaphor lasted for a half century.
  4. Relatedly, it is a visual metaphor that everyone knows. The reason metaphors are so powerful is that they connect something we understand and can describe easily (how an Etch a Sketch works) with something we can’t (how Romney works). If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a good metaphor is worth 2000.
  5. Etch a Sketch is itself a figure of speech — a rhyme — which makes it an even more memorable phrase. Rhymes, like the best figures, work because they aid memory. Indeed, the figures of speech were essentially developed by the great bards like Homer precisely because they made it easier for them to remember epic poems and because they stuck in the listener’s ears.
  6. You can hold in your hands. It can be used as a prop. Romney’s opponents, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have already done events holding Etch a Sketches.
  7. Cartoonists and others can draw something with the Etch a Sketch, giving the gaffe endlessly variety.
  8. The company itself, Ohio Art, has a motivation to keep pushing the metaphor to boost sales. Ad exec Jordan Zimmerman says, “It will help resurrect the brand and drive sales. If they are smart, they will parlay this.” And in fact, the Detroit Free Press reports that Ohio Art is already “sending a big box of Etch A Sketches to the presidential campaigns to say thanks for the publicity and a boost in sales.”

On the Chris Matthews Show last night, NBC news political director Chuck Todd said he asked people who were in DC to see the cherry blossoms whether they had heard of the gaffe and, to his surprise, they had. He said, “It’s penetrated the public consciousness because of the symbolism.”

Precisely. This Hall of Fame gaffe will prove far, far harder for the Romney campaign to erase than the Etch a Sketch itself.

17 Responses to Romney Can Create Jobs: Etch A Sketch Sales Jump 1500%. Eight Reasons The Gaffe Will Endure

  1. If the political race of 2012 serves as any indication of the collective wisdom of a democratic civilization in the 21st century, I’m forced to conclude that humankind is altogether a lost cause. The Democratic party is despair inducing enough with its inaction and whistling past the graveyard indifference to climate change – peak oil – overpopulation – resource depletion – perpetual warfare (and so forth). The Republican party is living in some sort of theocratic past, experiencing a time warp which would make for a good science fiction story (a poltical time machine, as it were) and there isn’t any hope whatsoever for either side to address, much less solve, the world’s increasingly obvious problems.

    Keep in mind … there are 190+ other nations and approximately 6.7 billion humans outside the USA. In a world addicted to consumption, pollution and violence it would take a Divine miracle to prevent a worst case scenario from occurring, and the Divine miracle should have occurred perhaps twenty five or fifty years ago (since such a miracle occurring today would actually appear too late, rendering God Himself an impotent observer of the self destruction of His own creation, or perhaps merely a nonexistent nonentity whose inactivity is thereby easily explained).

    The only confort that I derive from this Universe is its immense beauty and the prospects of life surviving the human catastrophe.

  2. I think the Etch-A-Sketch metaphore applies well to another area of our concern, and that is the denial industry; starting with tobacco through many stages (see Merchants of Doubt) and currently settling on global warming. Same players, same machinery, same operational tools, improving techniques and sophistocation…shake the screen and create the image of the day, forget the past, deny the past as well.

  3. ltr says:

    Sorry, I will not be supporting or vote for President Obama. No way. I am not voting for a pretend Democrat who is really a conservative Republican.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Definitely a hall of fame gaffe – which will be mined by Romney’s Republican and Democratic foes through the election.

    Romney’s campaign has had a knack for shooting itself in the foot, multiple times.

  5. Anne says:

    March 21 TO DO LIST:
    Buy Stock in Etch a Sketch

    March 23 TO DO LIST
    Kick self for not buying stock in Etch a Sketch!


  6. Dan Ives says:

    This all makes for a lovely self-indulgent LOL, but my question is:

    What is this doing on a blog about climate change?

    What does poking fun at Romney have to do with advancing climate policy or climate science?

    Obama pulled a colossal Etch-a-Sketch erase upon taking office. How come no one’s laughing at that?

  7. Joe Romm says:

    If you read my blog regularly, or even this post, your question is answered.

  8. Turboblocke says:

    Keep in mind … there are 190+ other nations and approximately 6.7 billion humans outside the USA.
    Well in Europe we’re doing our best to cut waste and are increasingly turning towards renewables.

    What’s taking you guys so long?

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The reason that things are so deplorable in the United States, so beyond satire, so morally insane, is that the USA is the most thoroughly capitalist society on earth. In countries similarly afflicted, such as Canada, the UK, various former ‘free market miracles’ like Latvia and Ireland, etc, the situation is almost as dire. Capitalism poisons everything by reducing the whole of human existence to a sordid calculus of profit and loss. It promotes the worst type of human, the greediest, most egotistical, most unscrupulous to power, and social necrosis inevitably follows. Romney is in the process of buying the Republican nomination, then it will be a straight battle of money to see who becomes President.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Etch-a-Sketchgate is a hopeful development. It means that there is a small chance that a President Romney will revert, once in power, to his previous rationality re anthropogenic climate change. Obama, in my opinion, offers considerably less hope of such a metamorphosis.

  11. Dan Ives says:

    Indeed I do read your blog regularly, and my question was answered before I even posted it. Try this:

    This post exists on a blog about climate change policy and climate science because it embarrasses the likely opponent of President Obama, whom the Center for American Progress is closely allied, which is the organization that ultimately funds and manages this blog.

    How’s my aim?

    P.S. I’ll grant your lonely sentence that sluggishly links to the topic of this blog (Romney’s stance on climate change). But analyzing this political gaffe and saying that it links to climate messaging is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion.

    Plus, you’ve already referred to Romney in other posts as “Etch-a-Sketch Guy.” So it seems to me that this post is indeed more about embarrassing Romney than it is about discussing topics related to climate change.

  12. Ernest says:

    One has to be old enough to remember “Etch a Sketch”. But for a newer generation, perhaps there can be a virtual equivalent in an iPad app.

  13. George D says:

    They were almost certainly jobs in China, where almost the entire toy industry has decamped to.

  14. Yes, production was moved to China in the 90s.
    BTW, the company president says:
    “Our target audience is four-to-eight year olds.”

  15. Chris Lee says:

    Brilliantly put. You have hit the nail squarely on the head. All we can hope (at least those of us without children) is that we go before everything else does. If I were a parent, I would be in total despair.

  16. Chris Lee says:

    Better a pretend Democrat than a screw-everyone -but-me-and-my-rich-friends Republican. Perhaps (just perhaps) if we could get a substantial Democratic majority in both houses things might improve. Absent that, we just go on spinning down the toilet.

  17. munky says:

    I understand your position, but considering not voting or voting republican or voting for someone who has no chance only serves the republicans anyway….who are you going to vote for?