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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cartoonists and others can draw something with the Etch a Sketch, giving the gaffe endlessly variety.
- 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.