The Power of Words

Politics and Dog Poop Ahead. Proceed With Caution.

bond

“Choose your next witticism carefully, Mr. Bond.  It may be your last.” 

– Auric Goldfinger to James Bond, who is about to be cut in half by a laser beam.

 

Bond: Well, you’re forgetting one thing. If I fail to report, 008 replaces me.
Goldfinger: I trust he will be more successful.
Bond: Well, he knows what I know.
Goldfinger: You know nothing, Mr. Bond.
Bond: Operation Grand Slam, for instance.
Goldfinger: Two words you may have overheard, which cannot have the slightest significance to you or anyone in your organization.
Bond: Can you afford to take that chance?
Goldfinger: [thinks for a moment, then orders the laser switched off] You are quite right, Mr. Bond. You are worth more to me alive.  (Source: IMDB)

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Words have consequences. Well-chosen words can have powerful consequences. They can build businesses and careers, torpedo presidential aspirations, and occasionally save a secret agent’s life.

Few people understood the power of the spoken word as well as the late Tony Schwartz*, who passed away on June 15, 2008 at 84 years of age.

My first exposure to Tony Schwartz’s work was as a young boy in Chicago watching, spellbound, his now-legendary “Daisy” TV spot, which was broadcast – just once – eight days before my twelfth birthday.  (That was in 1964, the same year Goldfinger exploded onto the big screen, making an indelible impression on adolescent minds.)

I don’t recall the particular movie we were watching that night, but I will never forget that commercial.

Although the controversial spot was pulled from the air shortly after that solitary airing, there’s no doubt that it had achieved its intended purpose.  Arousing Americans’ fears of unleashing a nuclear holocaust, it effectively halted Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign in its tracks.

Without even mentioning his name.

It was a powerful precursor to the rather more heavy-handed mudslinging that characterizes political advertising a half century later.

Schwartz’s cause-related advertising campaigns again showed up on my radar screen in the late 1970’s, when I was working as a radio advertising sales manager and happened to run across an article from the September 1977 issue of Media Decisions.  According to the article, entitled “Media’s muscleman,” Schwartz was living across the street from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when the New York Board of Education voted 10-0 to close the institution.  Schwartz “walked over to the president’s office and asked, ‘You want to save your college?’”  He offered to donate his services free of charge if the school would raise the money for media and production costs.

While the college solicited donations, Schwartz researched New Yorkers’ attitudes toward the college, crime in the city, and local politicians.  Thus armed, he wrote a series of radio spots “that literally shamed the town fathers into saving the school.”

“Did you ever wish there was some way to check up on politicians’ campaign promises?  In their last campaign, Governor [Hugh] Carey and Mayor [Abraham] Beame promised to do something about crime.  And they are.  They’re closing John Jay College.”

“We picked them off one by one,” Schwartz chortled afterwards, explaining that each of the people involved in the closing of John Jay was publicly singled out.

Bottom line?

Four weeks after the original vote, the board voted 9-0 (with one abstention) to keep the college open.

In addition, awareness of John Jay shot up from less than 5% to over 80%. Enrollments rose by 500 over the previous year’s 800.  And school officials [predicted] a $600,000 increase in the school’s budget.

All this on a total media expense of $20,000.  And all from a campaign on two local radio stations, WMCA and highbrow WQXR.

Why did Schwartz use radio?

“Because radio is the most invisible and emotional of all media.”

He points out: People don’t remember radio as a source of information because they don’t consciously listen to it.  Rather they bathe in it and sit in it.  Just as we are not conscious of our breathing, we are not actively aware of radio-mediated sound in our environment.  Yet we are deeply involved with radio, and we are strongly affected by radio programming that allows us to participate.” [emphasis mine]

I had occasion to visit by phone and email with Tony Schwartz a few times in the years before his passing.  He signed copies of his books, The Responsive Chord and Media The Second God, for me; his handwriting was shaky, but his mind certainly wasn’t.

One of the techniques I’ve used successfully in coaching clients who voice their own commercials was developed decades ago by Tony Schwartz.  He was able to coax amazing “natural” performances from very young children (such as the girl in the “Daisy” television spot) simply by having them listen to him reading the lines, and then mimic his delivery.

Schwartz’s use of broadcast advertising to create social change was ahead of its time. Decades before the Internet would make possible such viral campaigns as “United Breaks Guitars” (with over 15,000,000 views on You Tube to date, it’s spawned a successful book and a new speaking career for its creator), Schwartz was laying a guilt trip on parents who smoke for setting up their own children to become nicotine addicts.  Tired of having to watch out for the little brown land mines that littered the sidewalks of his New York neighborhood, he went after dog owners who refused to clean up after their pets, shaming them with well-chosen words in a surprisingly low-key punch-to-the-gut on radio. Listen to Tony sharing the back story, along with that memorable radio spot:

 

This campaign came to mind a few years ago, when the guys in charge of Pullman’s Stormwater Services department and I were discussing the problem of dog poop in Pullman. Our attractive pedestrian paths, parks, and play areas, enjoyed by many residents and visitors on a daily basis, were being poop-mined, thanks to maybe a dozen irresponsible dog owners who couldn’t be bothered to pick up after their pooches. So, we enlisted Pullman mayor Glenn Johnson to use his position (not to mention his famous voice) to address the issue. Here’s his spot:

Unfortunately, a few folks hearing “Pet Waste Station” thought they were supposed to deposit their filled bags into the containers…but that’s a discussion for another day.

 

*Tony was not a relative but a mentor and kindred spirit

________________

Rod

Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He became sales manager for the Pullman Radio Group in 1979 and served in that position until 2006. He continued to serve clients in the region as the stations’ senior account executive until his retirement at the end of 2022.  In 1991, Rod and his family started Grace Broadcast Sales, providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com.

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About Rod Schwartz 43 Articles
Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He became sales manager for the Pullman Radio Group in 1979 and served in that position until 2006. He continued to serve clients in the region as the stations’ senior account executive until his retirement in December 2022, having spent 43 of his 50 years in radio advertising here. In 1991, Rod and his family started Grace Broadcast Sales, creating short-form radio features which were syndicated to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com.