Seduction by Sound Bite: How Pink Slime Begat the Fiscal Cliff

As the number of media and messages around us continue to expand, it becomes harder and harder for any individual message to get through. Our attention spans are shorter. Our ability to process, comprehend, and act on complex messages seems to decrease with each additional device to which we’re exposed.

Hence the importance of the sound bite. Sound bites take the place of long, cumbersome thoughts. Not only are they easier for us to process and remember, they are designed to evoke strong emotions, which often lead us to incorrect conclusions.

Consider Pink Slime, the meat filler created by adding ammonia gas to meat products. Consumers were shocked to learn in March 2012 that this horrible sounding product was found in the ground beef we eat. The resulting controversy led to many suppliers and supermarket chains insisting their meat be free of the stuff.

The only problem is that this has been a steady part of our meat supply since 2001. It just didn’t have such a stomach churning name, so we didn’t know to have that emotional, gut reaction that led to consumers saying no way we won’t pay…for the meat with filler we’d been happily eating for 11 years.

Fast forward to Washington this fall. We are about to fall off of the Fiscal Cliff.  Wow. That sounds scary. Whether or not you’re scared of heights, falling off a cliff sounds pretty dangerous. Listening to the pundits, we may be torn apart limb by limb or even suffer fatal injuries in such a fall.

The problem here is that this is not the first time our politicians in Washington have come to an impasse around budget issues or tax rates. It happens on a regular basis, unfortunately. However, we’ve never had such an emotionally laden name for it before. Our eyes glaze over when we hear about budget issues or Congressional negotiating about tax rates and policy. But a cliff! We’ve never felt like we were at the edge of the cliff before! This sounds pretty dire.

We’ve got less than a week for President Obama and Congress to come to a compromise so we avoid the cliff. I suspect a last minute deal of some sort will be crafted–it usually is. However, even if it isn’t, I believe we’ll wake up in the New Year and the USA as we know it will not have ended (we’ve already survived the end of the Mayan calendar so we’re on a roll now). Some sort of deal will be put together in early January that will address many of the key issues, the government will go on functioning, and we will find a way to avoid the severe recession that is predicted if we go flying off the hillside.

The lesson for us as consumers of news and information is to be wary of these sound bites and dramatic names that lead us to believe we’re in imminent danger. Look beyond the scary language to see what’s REALLY happening.

The lesson for us as businesses is to be prepared to put the power of the sound bite to work FOR you. Stop trying to explain long and complicated programs or products. Cut to the chase. Figure out who your audience is and what you can tell them that will make it totally clear why they should care about what you’d like to tell them. Talk in simple language that appeals to their emotions–positively as well as negatively.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m underestimating the significance of the Fiscal Cliff (particularly if we hit a strip of Pink Slime when we land!). I’m no mountain climber, but it seems to me the best way to get down off a cliff is to rappel off the face of the mountain, tied in with ropes, in a controlled fashion.

And the best way to deal with an emotional sound bite is to talk people down with an analogy that makes things a lot less frightening. Here’s to a safe landing!

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