For example, people knew that Alka-Seltzer was taken for an upset stomach, but market research showed that nobody knew how many they should be taking — so most people just took one. But when viewers saw the infamous “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is” ads, purchases of Alka-Seltzer nearly doubled overnight. The tagline that sold the product became indivisible from the products function because it told consumer something they did not know.
A clear but somewhat narrow majority of Americans today support eliminating the so-called “estate tax,” and a slightly higher percentage would back the elimination of the “inheritance tax,” but more than 70 percent would abolish the “death tax”. Sure, some object that the term “death tax” is inflammatory, but think about it. What was the event that triggered its collection?
If unemployment and inflation are up and confidence in the future is down, telling voters that life has gotten worse, while clearly factual, is less effective than asking voters “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan asked Jimmy Carter and the tens of millions of debate listeners this devastating political question in their only face-to-face campaign encounter in 1980. No litany of economic data or political accusation could carry the power of a simple rhetorical question that for most Americans has an equally simple answer. “Are you better off” framed not just the debate, held only five days before the election, but the entire campaign, and it propelled Reagan from a dead even to ta nine-point victory over the incumbent Carter.
In effect, positioning an idea doesn’t merely “frame” it so that it carries a certain meaning; it actually defines the terms of the debate itself.
For example, by almost two-to-one, Americans say we are spending too much on “welfare” (42 percent) rather than too little (23 percent). Yet an overwhelming 68 percent of American think we are spending too little on “assistance to the poor,” versus a mere 8 percent who think we’re spending too much. Think about it: What is assistance to the poor? Welfare! So while the underlying policy in question may be the same, the definition — welfare versus assistance to the poor — and positioning make all the difference in public reaction. If the context is a government program itself, the process and the public hostility is significant. But if the context is the result of that government program, the support is significant.