The media called it “the Most Viral Political Ad of 2018.”
Lin-Manual Miranda — the lyrical genius behind the viral hip-hop musical Hamilton — tweeted that it’s “the best political ad anyone’s ever seen.”
It’s the three minute-long “Doors” video by consulting firm Putnam Partners in support of Air Force veteran Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, who is a Democratic candidate for Congress in central Texas.
It was created and produced by Putnam senior VP Cayce McCabe, who explained to Politico that after talking to Hegar and reading her bestselling book, Shoot Like a Girl, “I guess my brain just noticed the repetition of the word ‘door’. And so I just thought I could make this metaphor for the whole thing.”
Politico pointed out this was “the third Putnam Partners ad in the past two years that made a Democratic military veteran go viral.” The other two were 2016 Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander assembling an AR 15 blindfolded and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath announcing her bid for a Kentucky House seat in 2017.
ThinkProgress spoke to the firm’s founding partner, Mark Putnam, about how they create viral ads and specifically, the rhetorical device and figure of speech at the heart of so many of their ads: metaphors.
“I love metaphors,” Putnam explained, “because they are an easy storytelling device that pulls the viewer in and holds their attention long enough to be able to make your political point and try to convince them to take an action, whether it is calling somebody, voting for somebody, or making a donation.”
In modern parlance, metaphors are clicky (they pull the viewer in) and sticky (they holds the viewer’s attention) — as I discuss in my book, How to Go Viral and Reach Millions. They are a crucial figure of speech for making content go viral, for cutting through the Niagara Falls of noise online.
Indeed, as linguist George Lakoff wrote in his 2004 best-seller Don’t Think of an Elephant, “One of the fundamental findings of cognitive science is that people think in terms of frames and metaphors.” They are “in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry.”
As Putnam explained, “There are shortcuts to getting a voter to understand what you are talking about,” and “metaphors are the easiest way to make a point that is understandable, concise, and entertaining.”
But there is another reason metaphors are important. A 2005 study on “Presidential Leadership and Charisma: The Effects of Metaphor” examined the use of metaphors in the first-term inaugural addresses of three dozen presidents who had been independently rated for charisma. The remarkable conclusion:
Charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors (adjusted for speech length) than non-charismatic presidents.
Additionally, when students were asked to read a random group of inaugural addresses and highlight the passages they viewed as most inspiring, “even those presidents who did not appear to be charismatic were still perceived to be more inspiring when they used metaphors.”
Certainly the Trump campaign understood the importance of metaphors for creating viral political messages. Two of their most enduring viral messages, “drain the swamp” and “deep state,” are metaphors.
Indeed, both of those metaphors had been tested as winners in 2014 by the now-defunct big data firm Cambridge Analytica — at the direction of then Breitbart chief (and later Trump campaign chief) Steve Bannon, who was looking for anti-establishment slogans.
In the climate arena, metaphors are especially important because the subject is so complicated. Yet, at the same time, scientific training emphasizes sticking to facts and speaking literally, as opposed to figuratively or metaphorically. So climate scientists and other climate experts have been slow to adopt metaphors.
But the good news is that climate messaging has improved in recent years as many experts have worked hard to improve their communication skills. Here, for instance, is a great video in which climate scientists offer their favorite climate-related metaphors — from comparing the link between carbon dioxide and rising temperatures to a medical diagnosis to equating an ice shelf collapse to the popping of a champagne cork, once the pressure releases things flow fast.
That video is part of a valuable series from Skeptical Science, “Denial101x – Making Sense of Climate Science Denial” MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).
It is an excellent resource for environmentalists and climate communicators and indeed all progressives who want to master metaphors and other essential messaging strategies.
So while climate messaging continues to improve, the MJ Hegar “Doors” video shows the enduring power and flexibility of a successful metaphor.
As the ad’s creator, Cayce McCabe, put it, “people are spending their whole weekends binge-watching Netflix. So people’s attention spans aren’t that small. You just have to keep their attention. You have to give them something they want to watch.”