10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Don't Call McCain a Maverick Five Times in Your Ad!

What one word does John McCain want you to think of when you think of him? "Maverick"

So why does Obama's new ad use the word 5 times, even running the word across the screen? Because he and his ad people don't understand basic rhetoric and psychology (see Obama's Self-Defeating Rhetoric).

When voters go into the booth, especially the ones targeted with these ads who don't pay close attention to the race, they focus on just a few key thoughts and words. The last thing you want to do is repeat and reinforce your opponent's key memorable word.

You can't debunk a myth by verbally repeating it. This is basic stuff, so it is surprising that neither Obama nor his team understand it. It's why linguist George Lakoff titled his book, Don't think of an elephant. If I say that to you, you will think of an elephant. Negatives carry little rhetorical weight. I'll repost some of the vast psychological research below.

Obama's ad should read more like:

Narrator: They say they are not old-style politicians. Truth is, they are. Seven of John McCain's top campaign advisers are old big-spending Washington Lobbyists. McCain himself is part of the old big-spending crowd who votes with Bush 90% of the time. And Sarah Palin's an old-time big spender, too. She was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it. Politicians lying about their records? That's the old politics.

Or something like that. You get the point. Don't deny an opponent's virtue, affirm a negative one. And, of course, Obama and Biden and their surrogates would need to repeat those phrases again and again when they are on TV.

Would the McCain team challenge Obama's use of the word "old," claiming it was a dig at McCain. Let's hope so! It would only serve to create an echo chamber for the word 'old.' But McCain has no grounds to complain because he himself rather foolishly keeps opening the door by repeating the word on the stump, saying things like saying he and Palin will take on the "old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd."

I would drop the verbal and visual Western metaphor in the original ad -- the "Whoa" and the whip cracking. True, metaphors are arguably the most important figure of speech in rhetoric and the second most memorable (after repetition, which comprises about two dozen different figures of speech).

The problem is that the Obama team's metaphor is too clever by half -- it merely serves to underscore that McCain and Palin are from the West, the home of mavericks, a message drummed home by repeating over and over again the word "maverick" in the ad.

It bears repeating -- lines from the original ad like "McCain is hardly a Maverick" and "He's no maverick" and "Sarah Palin's no maverick either" are an absolute no-no.

This notion is so core to rhetoric that the ancient Greeks even had a figure of speech named for it -- apophasis, (from the Greek word for "to deny"), the figure of speech that emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, that stresses an idea or image by negating it. As Shakespeare has Marc Antony say to the Roman citizens in the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech after Caesar's assassination, "Sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny." He wants -- and gets -- a mutiny.

Nixon foolishly said "I am not a crook." What do you remember today -- "not" or "crook"?

This is not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by numerous recent psychological studies. In one 1990 study, undergraduate students observed sugar from a labeled commercial container as it was poured into two bottles. They then labeled one bottle "sugar" and the other "Not Sodium Cyanide." Students avoided eating sugar from the second bottle even though they had watched it being poured and "even though they had arbitrarily placed that label on it" and knew the label was accurate--that it was not sodium cyanide. Such is the power of words or, rather, the insidious lack of power of the word 'not.'

Even more insidious, "when people find a claim familiar because of prior exposure but do not recall the original context or source of the claim, they tend to think that the claim is true," as noted a 2005 journal article, "How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations," which concluded

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments, older adults were especially susceptible to this "illusion of truth" effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a 3 day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself but decreased recollection of the claim's original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

As explained in a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, "Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach":

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Another useful article is " 'I am not guilty' vs 'I am innocent' " by Ruth Mayo et al in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004, which found that for many people, the "negation tag" of a denial falls off with time:

"If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. "Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person's name again.

"If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.

It takes a lot of message discipline to do this. But then again, it usually takes a lot of message discipline to become president. Obama is lucky that he has one of the weakest presidential opponents in US history in terms of message discipline. That said, McCain seems to have found his voice, even if it is an old-politics lying voice.

Obama is getting better on the stump, but he is still lame in TV interviews -- as I argued in a recent post and as is painfully clear to anybody who saw Keith Olbermann desperately try to get him to make a stronger attack Monday night. If Obama could match his eloquence with a genuine understanding of the principles of rhetoric, this race would be a blowout.