In the late 1940s, only a few Americans were talking about a slim book called “Language in Action,” written by a little-known Japanese-American professor named S.I. Hayakawa. Behind the book’s innocuous title was a revolutionary idea: language describing any action could actually shape that action and its effects. Now, we casually refer to this effect as semantics. If you add pictures, you have advertising. Or, rather, it has you.
Businesses had already realized that semantics could sell products on radio, products that were not necessarily good or good for you. Lifebuoy soap could conquer B.O. (body odor.) From there, it was just a step to television ads and a visual vocabulary coming together. “You get a lot to like from a Marlboro.” One more jump and we were in politics, seeing through a new semantic prism.
Candidates no longer proclaim stiffly from a podium or the largest tree stump available. (Hence, the phrase stump speech.) Any candidate worth a few bucks was presented to us surrounded by a photogenic family or perhaps perched on a tractor or a pick-up truck. What did that have to do with the issues? Nothing. “Debates” had become TV auditions. Had Nixon lost to JFK in 1960 because he perspired and had a “five o’clock shadow?” And today, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has been criticized gingerly as perhaps being too ugly to be presidential material. What would they have thought of Abe Lincoln?
Patent Medicine salesmen had long ago learned that really wild exaggerations worked better than any other kind. Doans little liver pills had nothing to do with one’s liver and probably was just another in a long line of placebos that catch on.
An example of a modern-day placebo is “weapons of mass destruction” that made us feel better about 9/11 by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Cheney’s bitter little pill of the Iraq invasion. We are only now realizing that this massive con-job convinced this country that they could be the world’s sheriff without even paying the bills.
In this election year, we’re being asked to buy a “job-creator” president, while his own political party tells us that government can’t create jobs. Even after Wall Street bankers brought us a massive financial failure, the snake oil salesmen tell us we need to elect a businessman!
Draft-allergic Cheney and John “Boots on the Ground” McCain urge us to trust them on foreign policy because President Obama is too weak! Their credentials include a useless war and a huge deficit. McCain also wanted us to buy a cute, sassy vice president who it turns out can’t read a newspaper without moving her lips.
Fortunately, none of the three above became president but they always have a new brand of snake oil on sale. This one is called “Romney’s Magic Economic Elixir.” Don’t buy it, folks. It won’t cure anything!