Yogi Berra once said "you can hear a lot by listening." Well, as someone who listens to consumers for a living, I've found that if you really want to learn what voters are thinking, check out their "buts."
As an advertising professional, I've spent years sitting in focus groups, scrutinizing consumers as they offer their "honest" feedback. And what I've realized is that long after they've devoured their free turkey sandwich and made mince meat out of my television ad, the only opinion that matters is the one that comes after the word "but." All the well thought-out remarks preceding it are rational, left-brain responses that have nada to do with purchase intent.
"I love this cereal, and it has so many healthy vitamins and minerals -- but I don't think it will taste good." Snap, crackle, flop.
"The woman in that shampoo commercial was way too over the top, but she did make me laugh." Better stock the shelves guys.
And it doesn't work any differently for presidential hopefuls.
Seven years of enduring one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history, and we're still scratching our heads wondering what possessed so many of us to pull the lever for George. W. Well, it's our "buts" we should be scratching, because that's what got him elected in the first place.
"He doesn't seem all that intelligent -- and it's a bit disconcerting that he can't pronounce the word 'nuclear' -- but I'd love to have a beer with him." The most important job on the planet, and we're still awarding it to the guy we'd like to hang with at a frat party.
As a former member of the advertising team on Senator Hillary Clinton's now suspended presidential campaign, I can assure you that we watched our "buts" constantly. And though the effectiveness of the commercials we produced can debated "ad" nauseam, it's safe to say that Senator Clinton handily convinced eighteen million people that she was the best choice for president.
Still, the boys took the spoils (again) this election year, and now both are zeroing in on the Hillary contingent. That means they have a whole new batch of "buts" to look out for. I won't be in those focus groups, of course, but I can already hear the comments.
"I find Barack Obama brilliant, visionary and inspiring -- but he looks too scrawny to defend our country if we get attacked."
"Obama says he can relate to working class people like me -- but why did he ask for herbal tea at that diner in New Jersey?"
"John McCain keeps calling me 'his friend'-- but I get this funny feeling he could turn on me at any second."
"McCain is a true American hero, with a long, admirable Senate record -- but, jeez, the guy is older than dirt."
Meanwhile, regardless of their "no negative ads" war cry, each candidate will try to expose the other's sorry "buts" in the most flagrant and unflattering ways possible. Obama needs to cover his by attracting zillions of youth votes -- the fresh faced kids who see him a middle-aged guy with a vision -- while at the same time playing down his chai latte metrosexual persona. A few more jump shots from the key, and a little less "Can you grow arugula on your farm?" when cavorting with the commoners.
McCain needs to define his aging "but" as being the only candidate with the decades of experience needed to lead this nation at such a critical time in our history. That means the Straight Talk team will have to position his wrinkles as respectable worry-lines, the result of years of fretting about ear marks, pork barrels, and how to keep us in Iraq for another century or two.
Oh, yeah, and watch that hair trigger temper of yours, John-boy, and show Cindy the love once in a while.
In other words, the key to winning, fellas, is to make sure you're not just listening to the voters, but you're really hearing them, as well. Be someone they can relate to. Someone they truly admire. Someone they can really like. And while you're at it, be wary of research and focus groups that give you logical answers. Look for the eye rolls, the facial cues, the smiles, the sneers, the folded arms, or the casual banter that ensues while the commentator takes her bathroom break. The truth is never obvious; it slips out at the tail end of a sentence. And watching your tail is what will get you that fancy Pennsylvania address.
Because when the issues of health care, energy, and our sinking economy have been debated in 75,000 Town Hall meetings across America, and voters are demanding to hear more about the heady issues -- they'll still end up voting with their hearts.
So get our there, guys. Tell us how you're going to turn this country around. Just remember to watch your you-know-what at all times. Because that's how we pick a president.
No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Linda Kaplan Thaler is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the Kaplan Thaler Group advertising agency in New York.