Is Bush Losing the Metaphor Wars in the Battle Over Privatization?

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Republicans have been very successful in the metaphor wars to win support for everything from the Iraq War (remember "axis of evil"?) to the 2004 election. This time, however, metaphorically speaking, they are being soundly defeated by the opposition.

According to Anne Miller, author of “Metaphorically Selling,” one major reason President Bush is failing to persuade the American public of the wisdom of social security privatization is because he has been “out-metaphored” by the Democrats and the very powerful AARP organization.

Originally, the Bush administration opted to appeal to "fear" as a strategy to sell its social security privatization plan. This strategy was executed quite successfully to rally support for the Iraq war (remember “axis of evil?”), but, according to presentation strategist Miller, "it is not being executed very well for privatization." In January of this year, someone leaked a memo from a White House aide to Karl Rove which said, "The public must be convinced that the current system is 'heading for an iceberg.'" In effect, the memo was saying, let's scare 'em into change.

Since then, instead of popularizing the scary “heading-for-the-iceberg” image and its Titanic associations, the Bush team has been trumpeting the vague term “crisis” to Americans. However, “crisis” is not nearly as loaded an image as the concrete metaphors the opponents of privatization have used. The Democrats accuse the Republicans of wanting to "wreck the safety net." AARP has run a series of metaphoric anti-privatization ads. One says, "There are places in your retirement plan for risk, but Social Security isn't one of them. 'If we feel like gambling, we'll play the slots.'" In another, a plumber examining a sink says, "Yep, it looks like a clogged drain. Only one way to fix it. We're going to have to tear down the house." As the house is being razed to the ground, the voiceover says, "If you had a problem with the kitchen sink, you wouldn't tear down the entire house. So, why dismantle Social Security when it can be fixed with moderate change?"

"Safety net." "Gambling." "Wrecking a house to fix a clogged drain." All have strong negative associations for us. All are very specific visually. The outcome in this battle remains to be seen, but if the Bush administration cannot reframe its defense of privatization in a more concrete, emotional and visually compelling way, Miller predicts, "It will have sealed its own defeat." As Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor.” This time around the “metaphor masters” are in the opposing camp.


Anne Miller is Founder of Chiron Associates, Inc., a leading sales and presentations consultancy. For twenty years, she has helped Fortune 1000 companies like Citigroup and Yahoo! sell millions of dollars of services and products. She is previously the author of “365 Sales Tips for Winning Business” and “Presentation Jazz! and numerous articles in both on and offline media and has been featured on CNNfn and Bloomberg News Radio.

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Anne Miller