“My metaphorical cup is this full…”
Retreat to your cocoon, adjust your tin foil hat, pull the wool over your eyes and get ready to drink the Kool-Aid, sheeple—it’s time for a lesson in messages more infuriating than the last season of Lost.
See, journalists think people who live in White Houses shouldn’t throw stones…if by “stones” you mean a series of increasingly obtuse metaphors that only serve to muddle the message. That’s the point NPR writer Ari Shapiro brought to the (allegorical) table last week when he “shouted” during a briefing with secretary Jay Carney that the analogies used to describe government shutdown negotiations were no longer “serv[ing] our purposes” as fact-based reporters.
This happened after Carney told the gaggle of scriveners that the president would not pay “ransom” to opponents in order to keep the country running. Shapiro was simply calling him out for overcomplicating the issue by mixing his metaphors: earlier he said that the proposed short-term debt ceiling deal was a way for House Republicans to keep the “nuclear weapon” of debt default in their “back pocket” and that there’s still no way to know whether they’ll “put the matches and gasoline aside” when it comes to such threats.
That last one gave us a headache, but it’s just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. In case you think this rhetorical free-for-all is all the White House’s fault, here are some other bad messaging apples drawn from recent crises:
- “…a sugar-coated Satan sandwich” – Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s “very accurate” description of a proposed 2011 debt deal
- “It’s a Sophie’s Choice, right?” – Carney describing decisions about which bills to pay
- “Extortion…hostage-taking” – President Obama characterizing current negotiations
- “[The default issue is] a hostage that’s worth ransoming” – Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2011, in case you thought Obama was the first to go there
- “…we might as well do it now — pull off the Band-Aid; eat our peas.” – The president pressing debt negotiators to come to an agreement
- “Lemmings with suicide vests” – Rep. David Nunes’ description of fellow Republicans willing to shut down the government
- “And the Tea Party hobbits could return to middle earth having defeated Mordor” – Sen. John McCain comparing his colleagues to Elijah Wood and the guy from Rudy
- “When someone is overextended and broke, they don’t continue paying for expensive automobiles.” – Rep. Paul Broun comparing the U.S. to a family trying to stay within its budget (and missing the mark by a mile)
- “[The plan was] a Hail Mary touchdown pass. Let’s go and take what we can get in this, get the five yards, get the first down and fight the next battles” – Rep. Blake Farenthold taking his football metaphor way too far
- “Maybe throw in a Special Counsel to investigate the President’s birthplace and the House GOP will stop committing economic treason.” – Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe turning what could have been a decent joke into a terrible analogy
It’s not just politicos and message massagers: the media does it too.
- “Some…have already declared the Senate bill ‘dead on arrival‘ in the House” – Various media outlets comparing a law to a cadaver
- “A decisive re-election would break the feverish stalemate in Washington…” – Time Magazine describing the government as a sick chess player
- “But the machinery was engaged and it seemed to have no reverse gear” – Time again, describing the plan for a shutdown as some sort of vehicle
This bonus entry may be a Batman reference:
The economy is in on one ferry, the Constitution on the other, and the GOP has them rigged to blow if we don’t play its game.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) October 7, 2013
Here’s what we know: in PR as in politics, simplicity and transparency are your best friends. You can try to twist the message any number of ways but, as two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Boston University professor Robert Pinsky puts it:
“The attempt to clarify becomes like a poem by an avant-garde surrealist poet.”
In other words, using too many metaphors is like having too many cooks in the kitchen (and that was a simile, BTW). If you do manage to find a clever way to describe something complicated by comparing it to something less so then please give yourself a pat on the back, but stick with a single analogy.
Why? Because the more you twist the language the more you’ll come off as the one thing you don’t want to be: a spin doctor.