Sunday, January 18, 2009

“I Can See Russia From My House!”

No, this isn’t a blog about politics. But I do intend to use politics to make a point about something. Marketers work very hard to come up with tag lines that can be used to “brand” products. But sometimes this branding happens spontaneously, and I think we could learn something by looking at how and why that happens.

Think about the way in which presidents, vice presidents, and candidates are so often branded, for good or ill, by one telling phrase. For Nixon, it was (cue lowered eyebrows, shaking jowls, and guttural voice) , “I’m not a crook.” For Reagan, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Reagan was lucky; if Afghanistan hadn’t crashed the Soviet Union, Reagan’s defining line would probably have been the endless dazed “I don’t remember” from the Iran-Contra hearings.) Clinton? Take your pick: “I did not have sex with that woman.” Or, “That depends on what the meaning of is is.” Bush II? “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie!” (closely followed by Mission Accomplished and “Bring it on.”) Think about Dan Quayle and what comes to mind? Potatoe.” Hart? The Monkey Business.

These politicians did not choose these phrases as their defining tags; the media and the public chose for them. Why? Because for some reason, these phrases resonated with people. We see this sort of thing happen with movies, too. Think about Make my day. I see dead people. Show me the money. You had me with hello.

Why do these phrases become so iconic? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to happen as often with books. True, most people would recognize the first line from Pride and Prejudice. Gone with the Wind gave us three lines: As God is my witness I’ll never be hungry again, Tomorrow is another day, and Frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn. But were those phrases so well known before the movie? I don’t doubt there are other examples from books, but it says something that I can’t think of them.

Still, I suspect we could learn something important by studying these phrases and thinking about the way they click. So, thoughts, anyone?

p.s. I know Sarah Palin actually said you can see Russia from Alaska. But because Tina Fey’s line so wonderfully captured the essence of the absurdity of the original, that’s the phrase that will forever characterize Palin (that and the turkey massacre).

15 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

We should talk about this in the writing group sometime. A very interesting topic.

Steve Malley said...

A lot of people get paid a lot of money to try to MAKE phrases, images, etc. as 'sticky' as those lines.

I think the reason examples from books are harder to come by is that what 'sticks' in a story is a moment. In a movie, a small child crying 'Come back, Shane! Come back!' is a moment. In a book, it's a line of dialogue.

When I think of books I've loved, the ones that really stuck with me, what I generally remember is a defining moment, not a particular phrase.

Shauna Roberts said...

Another interesting thing about "stickiness" is that it seems to happen much more easily with music. "Gillgan's Island" went off the air decades ago and yet the theme song still plays in my head sometimes.

Steve Malley said...

Shauna, did you know you can sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Gilligan's Island", and vice versa?

cs harris said...

Charles, I really would like to talk about this in the group. We missed you last night; hope you feel better soon!

Steve, I think you're right; that difference between the essense of a moment in movies vs. books.

Shauna, I think you've hit on another part of it--the way we remember things we hear vs. the things we read. And yeah, I can still sing that entire silly Giligan song. Although Steve, I don't think I'd want to try it with the words of Amazing Grace!

laughingwolf said...

just put your lips together and blow...

play it, sam...

bogey

Mark Sturgess said...

Yes, You really can see Russia from Alaska? Russia and Alaska are divided by the Bering Strait, which is about 55 miles wide at its narrowest point. When this area freezes over in December you can walk from Alaska to Russia.


So, Sarah is correct and Tina Fey isn't a very nice person for twisting her words. Tina Fey sounds like the Joy character in the sit-com, "My name is Earl". Joy hurts one persons feelings by making fun of her, but 6 other people get a good laugh out of it. Joy thinks 6 to 1 odds makes her right. Yes, I laughed to, but it was at someone else's expense.

Another problem with the phrase "I can see Russia from my House", is that it's sexist. Your laughing at this phrase because it means, "I am a stupid woman".

2008 will go don't in history as the most Sexist / Racist election in history.

Mark Sturgess said...

All of the old phrases about Negros not being very smart didn't come up in the election concerning Obama at all. Even though he got into College through the Affirmative Action program. No one wanted to come off as a racist. But it is still OK to insinuate that women aren't smart by twisting and mocking their words. It's still OK to be sexist but not a racist.

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