The Advantage Blog

‘Obamacare’ and the Power of Language

October 11, 2013 | By |

As trial consultants we strive to capitalize on the power of language by finding the right words and phrases that will help shape jurors’ understanding and recall of a case. Our goal is to find language that will activate frameworks that result in seeing the facts in a particular way.

George Lakoff, a leader in the field of cognitive science and linguistics, emphasizes the importance of word choice in tapping into these frameworks:  “Every word is defined with respect to one or more frames. When you hear the word, the frame is activated in your brain.”[1]

For example, the defendant driver of the car wasn’t just the “driver”; she was a “mom” who was taking her son to soccer practice. The young man didn’t “fall through a screen”; he “leaned into a bug screen.” The use of the word “mom” clearly activates a different framework than simply describing someone as a “driver”; and calling a screen a “bug screen” helps frame the object’s design purpose as keeping small bugs out of a room rather than 185 pound men in.

Another good example can be seen in the policy arena. When you hear and/or see the words “corporate welfare,” what perceptions are created? Are they the same as when you hear the term “tax relief”? For most people, these words activate very different frameworks that create positive or negative views of the issue, yet both of these phrases can be used to describe an identical policy to reduce taxes for businesses.

Perhaps there is no better way to demonstrate the power of language and framing than the recent focus on The Affordable Care Act – also known as “Obamacare.” When President Obama introduced the Affordable Care Act of 2010, opponents needed a way to demonize it. Even before he was President, critics described the approach as “Obamacare.” Even though Democrats found ways to embrace the term, a recent CBS poll shows the power of language in shaping perceptions.  The poll found that 46% oppose “Obamacare,” but only 37% of those same people oppose the “Affordable Care Act.” How can this be? It’s the same thing!

Although Jimmy Kimmel recently attributed this dissonance to the ignorance of the American Public, we can’t ignore the fact that the label has a visceral impact on a certain faction of Americans. It conjures a framework that easily allows rejection of any ideas that fall within it.

Trial themes act in the same way. You may not be lucky enough to find your theme as impactful as “Obamacare,” but wisely choosing the language that will shape your case can be as important as citing the applicable law in a Motion for Summary Judgment.  If you control the language in a case, you also control the frameworks being used by jurors to judge the issues before them, which can make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of the case.

[1] George Lakoff, Framing: A Brief Introduction, http://www.thelittleblueblog.org/framing-basics/.

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