The Linguistics of Mass Persuasion Part 2: Choose Your Own Adventure


Death and taxes are two things nobody loves. Put them together and you have the “death tax,” a gruesome, almost frightening concept. But a “death tax” is just an “estate tax” on the rich that most people will never have to deal with. Our blind acceptance that taxes are bad means that we are quick to adopt ominous phrases like “death tax.” For similar reasons, we never really stop to question seemingly neutral terms like tax relief or tax haven. What kind of heartless monster would be against tax relief or be in favor of death taxes anyway?

We can be easily swayed by political catchphrases and advertising slogans that are intentionally crafted to convince and direct us into making certain choices.

Perhaps responsible citizen type monsters who enjoy using public infrastructures like roads, electricity, and the interwebs? Taxes, a healthy part of civic life, pay for a lot of necessary things. Nevertheless, we believe that taxes are such a crippling burden that we need the figurative equivalent of a cure from illness to deal with them. Anyone who tells us differently must be selling something. But linguist George Lakoff points out that each word in these seemingly innocuous phrases frames exactly how we’re supposed to think, even if we’re unaware of it. And all it took was two little words. As he wrote:

The phrase “Tax relief”…got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party…The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.

Regardless of where you stand on political issues, it’s pretty mind-boggling that mass persuasion can be wrapped up in the tiniest of linguistic bonbons which we then unwittingly consume without questioning them. But are these terms just innocently calling it the way they see it? Nora Miller, in analyzing the metaphors behind framed terms like “death taxes,” points out:

As Frank Luntz put it…”nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die.” So the Republican machine changed the frame by changing the name—the estate tax became the “death tax.” Now, even though 98 percent of people will never pay this tax…most people polled favor repeal of this tax, because “taxing at death is immoral.”

We can be easily swayed by political catchphrases and advertising slogans that are intentionally crafted to convince and direct us into making certain choices. It doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, the simpler the words, the more effective it often is. Why does this work on us?

Even before George Orwell’s 1984 popularized the idea of political doublespeak, it was being expertly wielded by politicians of an earlier age in rousing speeches and propaganda efforts. In 1972, the American historian Henry Steele Commager noted that:

Corruption of language is a special form of deception which [the Nixon] Administration, through its Madison Avenue mercenaries, has brought to a high level of perfection. Bombing is “protective reaction”, precision bombing is “surgical strikes”, concentration camps are “pacification centers” or “refugee camps” … Bombs […] dropped on one of your own villages are excused as “friendly fire”; a bombed house becomes automatically a “military structure.”

Notice that most of these linguistic machinations hide behind simple nominal compounds, which are much harder to unpack than a longer sentence or phrase. What has emerged in recent times as crucially important to controlling public opinion and communication is “framing” the debate—using language effectively to define the issues and tell the story you want to tell. As we’ve seen, the digital age and a willing mass media have made it easier for politicians to turn a carefully curated new phrase into a popular, highly repeatable term. However, staying strictly on message with memorized talking points can make a political speaker seem disingenuous (even if they honestly believe what they’re saying).

How it Works in Advertising

The advertising world is rife with “authentic” storytelling, which uses beautifully shot images, symbolism, and language to generate emotional narratives.

So, the linguistics of mass persuasion have become necessarily more sophisticated to handle the challenges of an increasingly cynical public. It has to seem authentic—and not deliberately manipulative—to work. You might have noticed, for instance, how the advertising world is rife with “authentic” storytelling, which uses beautifully shot images, symbolism, and language to generate emotional narratives. Yes, language can subtly frame a story for us, lead us down the garden path—but then what? There’s actually an insidious little rhetorical trick being used that we’re often blind to. Surprisingly, the trick is to seemingly give up control of the narrative and let these framed ‘stories’ all end on a kind of cliffhanger, which we then mentally fill in to determine the outcome.

“Persuasion by hinting” might seem like a fuzzy leap of faith but modern advertising has already trained us to resolve omitted information just the way we’re supposed to. Consider constructions such as “20% more/quieter/cleaner/bigger/faster!” (than what?). These are all comparatives that aren’t actually being compared to anything at all. They’re grammatically unresolved phrases and we’re gently led to expect something there. So we fill-in-the-blank ourselves, within the frame of the new narratives we’ve been fed, in an act that seems to be totally under our control, but isn’t.


How it Works in Politics

Political language likewise has made effective use of setting up a story—and then getting the audience to “fill in” the blanks, as Lakoff puts it. Political language exploits unspoken cliffhangers in two ways: framing an emotional narrative and a desire for a linguistic resolution. Essentially, you become the storyteller in a political “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, with all your choices already mapped out for you.

“You shall know a word by the company it keeps.”
—J.R. Firth

Just how are we led to fill in the blanks the right way? Consider the notorious 1994 GOPAC memo, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” (which reveals that the cynical use of weaponized political language is alive and well). The memo lists positive and negative words for Republican members to use towards allies and opponents. It does contain charged words, like failure or crisis. But there are also more neutral sounding words such as deeper or they and them. We might ask why these harmless words, which had undergone focus group testing for their efficacy, would be considered useful word weapons?

It’s this gray area of underlying value judgements, their associated imagery, and emotional inferences that political language seeks to exploit with new terms.

In “Truth Is a Linguistic Question,” Dwight Bolinger outlines how linguistic strategies that cleverly omit information are used in mass persuasion. Broadly defined words, such as those innocent pronouns (they, them) in the GOPAC memo, can be manipulated and turned negative in the right contexts. In the political sphere we often hear vague yet alarming statements such as, “they say…”, “they’re going to tell you…”, or “they hate our values…” But who are they? We don’t really know, but we fill it in according to our own social biases and—given the right sort of frame—it can be effective.

Of course, context is everything. Words may appear innocent enough in a dictionary, but in practice their impact may vary. To understand how a word or phrase may be manipulated, we need to understand the kinds of terms that surround it. In the words of the linguist J. R. Firth, “You shall know a word by the company it keeps.”

Collocations: Understanding the Context

Collocations are the words that are commonly found around a certain word more often than chance. Some neutral words may, over time, develop more negative or positive nuances because of their collocations (I previously wrote about this on words like migrant, immigrant, and refugee). Collocations really reveal something about the biases that are current in a community, regardless of ideology. It also means that a speaker can appeal to an audience’s values using what appears to be neutral words (according to the dictionary) that just happen to pack a persuasive punch.

Take the word rabid. If you had to “fill in the blank” by using it in a phrase, what’s the first noun that comes to mind? Rabid dog? Rabid fan? How about rabid feminist? The choice may tell you a bit about your underlying assumptions. Oxford Dictionaries encountered recent criticism for negatively gendering their definitions without reason. Examples like a rabid feminist, nagging wife, or her high, grating voice consistently showed up in their definitions of words (rabid, nagging, and grating, respectively) that don’t have to be gendered at all. So analyzing collocations can tell us a lot about the hidden senses that a word may be developing.

As we engage with politics, it’s important to remember how powerful words can ultimately be, and how easily we can be persuaded by them.

With enough consensus and repetition, words can be manipulated to acquire particular nuances through their collocations. If you encounter the phrase rabid feminist repeatedly in uniformly negative contexts, you may just mentally fill in the blanks when you encounter the word feminist, even if you don’t hold those views yourself. It’s this gray area of underlying value judgements, their associated imagery, and emotional inferences that political language seeks to exploit. A new phrase like anchor baby contains two perfectly harmless words. But once they’re put together and repeatedly used in a negative context, the phrase becomes a slur.

In the realm of political persuasion, sophisticated language use can be very effective in swaying an audience. We are encouraged to “choose” out of a limited set of choices, to fill in obvious information, to resolve the cliffhanger in an already fully-framed narrative—all without necessarily being aware of it. As we engage with politics, it’s important to remember how powerful words can ultimately be, and how easily we can be persuaded by them.

JSTOR Citations

Truth Is a Linguistic Question

By: Dwight Bolinger

Language, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sep., 1973), pp. 539-550

Linguistic Society of America

The Constitutive Role of Emotions in the Discursive Construction of the “People”: A Look into Obama’s 2008 “Race Speech”

By: Carlos Andrés Pérez Hernández

Signs and Society, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 2013), pp. 273-296

University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Brandeis University

Mass Persuasion and the Analysis of Language: A Critical Evaluation

By: Marvin Bressler

The Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Sep., 1959), pp. 17-27

American Sociological Association


By: Nora Miller

ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 62, No. 2 (April 2005), pp. 202-206

Institute of General Semantics

'Curvy, hunky, kinky': Using corpora as tools for critical analysis

By: Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard and Rosamund Moon

Discourse & Society, Vol. 21, No. 2 (March 2010), pp. 99-133

Sage Publications, Ltd.

Contested Methods: Daniel T. Rodgers's Contested Truths

By: Mark Olsen and Louis-Georges Harvey

Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1988), pp. 653-668

University of Pennsylvania Press

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has advanced degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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