04/08/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Meet the Kochs

Democrat senators are under assault from attack ads funded by Americans for Prosperity, the super-pac of billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch. Recently however, a fight-back strategy has appeared. Democrats are no longer attacking the attack-ads. Instead they are attacking the men who are funding them.

For the first time, the Koch brothers themselves have become the news-story, and they really don't appear to like it.

The evidence for that success lies in a recent Koch fight-back that has broken out. Not only have American's for Prosperity attacked the Democrat initiative, but even Charles Koch himself has felt the need to publish an op-ed defense in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal. Just to complete the picture, Kansas Senator Jerry Moran (Kansas hosts the headquarters of Koch Industries) felt obliged to ensure that even the Congressional Record itself should contain an unchallenged defense of the doings of the Kochs. How did he achieve this? By reading Charles Koch's op-ed word-for-word from the floor of the Senate.

In political communications, when your opponent howls like this, then you know that something hurt.

Here's what the Dems are doing:

Acknowledging that they can't challenge the volume of the Koch brother's advertising spend, Democratic strategists are instead focusing on changing how those messages are interpreted by the electorate.

If you can change the perception of the message receiver, then you can hijack the message itself. This effectively turns the message back against its own creator, just like the monster turning back against Dr. Frankenstein.

Dems are using the reputation of the Koch brothers themselves as the means to create just such a shift.

Imagine the recipient of any political or commercial message, and imagine them viewing that message through a pair of reading glasses. Before the message hits their brain, it's filtered by the lenses in those glasses. If somehow you can change the lenses, then you can change how the message is received. The Dems need to make those lenses display a negative image, and for an effective message-maker, the Kochs can be cooked into some usefully villainous clichés.

As humans, we are horribly susceptible to the power of cliché. If something can be made to fit a nice neat mould, then it saves us the trouble of processing information for ourselves. So let's think of what a set-piece villain might look like.

First go back to the heyday of Hollywood and the days of silent movies. What did the villain look like? There would be a black top-hat, a sinister cape, and quite possibly, just for effect, a waxed mustache, perfect for a spot of sinister twirling. In short -- it was a cliché of capitalism. Even in the roaring '20s Hollywood had a left-wing tilt.

Now think how that villain operates: They appear out of swirling darkness. They commit their vile skullduggery. They then dramatically sweep their cape back over their face, and melt, once again, back into the obscurity from whence they came.

This cliché remains a handy hook in the subconscious of the American audience. Today the top-hat and cape might have gone, and a sinister English accent might have been added, but the basic structure remains. Reclusive, super-wealthy, back-room masterminds, willing to manipulate the market to the disadvantage of the average joe, are still a Hollywood staple.

Now consider the Koch brothers in the popular imagination:

  • Reclusive? Check
  • Super-wealthy? Check
  • Eager to stay out of the limelight? Check
  • Suspected of seeking to create political policy for their own advantage? Check
It's a perfect villain cliché that the Koch's have inadvertently designed themselves to slip into like a villainous hand into a villainous glove -- the type of glove that leaves no finger-prints.

It's estimated that just under half of Americans have heard of the Kochs. The Democrats are seeking to ensure that the other half now get to hear of them as well. If this campaign has an internal Democratic Party codename, I'd like to suggest that it's going to be called "Operation Meet the Kochs"

If the Democrats successfully identify the Koch brothers to the public, and link the Kochs to Americans for Prosperity, then each attack-ad will simply remind the public of the Kochs themselves. No matter how compelling the logic of each advert, and no matter the apparent credibility of its words, the message itself will be destroyed by the negative emotion attached to its billionaire backers.

By changing the lenses through which the electorate views Americans for Prosperity, Democrats can successfully turn the Koch's own attack ads back against them.

Peter Watts is a communications coach and analyst. His weekly blog of ideas and tips for presenters can be found at