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Political Lessons From the NFL Scandals

Political Lessons From the NFL Scandals

Confession: At first I was supportive of the NFL’s two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Why? Because the incident that ignited the scandal took place inside of a casino elevator, and casinos have security cameras everywhere (Initially, we only saw footage of Mr. Rice and his then-fiancé Janay Palmer exiting/pulled out of the elevator; we never saw what happened inside.). I presumed that the casino had shared the elevator video with the prosecutors, who then declined to take any serious action. Moreover, the only two people who were actually in the elevator had since made amends (and exchanged wedding vows), and the now-Mrs. Janay Palmer Rice loudly proclaimed her shared culpability.

Also relevant was the Ray Rice “brand” that had been carefully constructed over the past decade, dating back to his days as a gridiron god at Rutgers: Ray Rice was one of the “good guys” and a “team leader” who embodied all the virtues that we Football Dads so loudly extol–bravery, discipline, strength, and sacrifice.

We knew Ray Rice…and good Lord, this just didn’t sound like him.

So, when the prosecutors opted to let Rice walk with a soft slap on his wrist, I assumed that the now-happily married couple probably had too much to drink one night, behaved like drunken idiots, scuffled, and the much-larger Rice somehow hurt her. Still a terrible, condemnable act, but far from O.J.-esque in proportion. What was impossible to foresee was the degree of malice, but since Janay was there and she had not only forgiven Ray but had chosen to marry him, who was I to argue otherwise? Additionally, just as the Ray Rice “brand” was relevant in connecting-the-dots, so was the checkered racial history of American law enforcement: From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson to Kobe Bryant to Plaxico Burress, authorities have not exactly been risk-adverse when it comes to prosecuting well-known African American athletes for criminal activity – real and imagined. The prosecutors’ indifference reinforced my own.

Then TMZ uploaded the elevator video. And everything changed.

Marketing and political lesson: When it comes to generating a powerful, emotional reaction, the raw, visceral impact of visual images surpasses all else. Nothing comes close. 

If there had been video images of Michael Vick electrocuting dogs, he never would’ve been reinstated into the NFL. If there had been photographs of Ray Rice’s ex-teammate Ray Lewis disposing of the clothes he wore when Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were brutally murdered (all of Lewis’s clothes–including the expensive mink coat he was wearing that fateful night–mysteriously “vanished” before the police could examine them), Lewis never would’ve been rewarded with a high-profile ESPN studio job, where he now piously offers his advice to others.

Conversely, if we had only heard about Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson’s recent child abuse allegations, he’d still be playing on Sunday. The pictures did him in.

It’s all about emotion.

Marketers understand that consumers will listen to words, statistics, and facts when considering a transaction, but visual imagery works as the magical ingredient that forges an emotional reaction–which is critical in commerce, because consumers make purchasing decisions based on emotion (Afterwards, consumers will justify/validate their decisions with factual information, but our decision-making process is mostly emotional: How does this transaction make me feel?).

On Super Bowl Sunday, the most memorable commercials aren’t the ones with the most interesting facts, but the most striking visuals–particularly visuals that trigger an emotional response.

This is why ISIS would rather kill one man on-camera than a thousand men off-camera: The emotional impact of one beheading carries more gravitas than the slaughter of 250,000 (and rising) Arabs in Syria who had the misfortune of dying when the cameras weren’t rolling.

It’s also why the Obama administration’s Middle East approach has been so unsuccessful.

While the President carefully splices words and offers nuanced explanations of what constitutes a “war,” a growing army of YouTube-savvy terrorists communicate globally in the explosive language of emotional images. While the President offers muddled explanations of how victory will be achieved without US ground troops, ISIS races to establish its brand identity as being Allah’s Army–and defenders of “true Islam.” 

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

We know how much the terrorists care; indeed, the magnitude of their fanaticism horrifies. But how much does President Obama care?

He needs to tell us–and more importantly, he needs to tell them. And then he must show us all, with words, deeds, and actions. Make it memorable: Ronald Reagan once stood in divided Germany and demanded that Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!”  So why can’t President Obama stand before One World Trade Center and use the power of his oratory to explain why he believes in this cause so deeply that he’s willing to send young men and women in harm’s way overseas? Why won’t he attack the ISIS brand with the same intensity as his rapid-fire broadsides on Hillary, John, and Mitt? Why is he so jingoistic when it comes to the Republican War on Women, and so dispassionate about ISIS’ War on You and Me?

It’s President Obama’s responsibility to stir the hearts of the righteous in clear, concise language.

Because TMZ can’t do it for him.


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