What's In a Name?

Olivia Offner  Follow

School House Rock BillTo what extent does a name account for the success of a product launch? In the communications field, we often devote a significant amount of time to thinking up the perfect name for something, recognizing that the name can be the most impactful part of a campaign. It’s the headline, the slogan, the part that stays with you when you can’t remember the substance anymore. In politics, the products are the candidates, the campaigns, the logos, the ideas and ultimately, the legislation encompassing those ideas. Largely due to the rise of social and new media, political branding efforts are becoming more visible and more important.

On September 8, President Obama gave a speech to a joint session of Congress (and anyone who wasn’t watching reruns on Bravo). He announced his vision for the American Jobs Act of 2011, which will, among many other things detailed on whitehouse.gov: help small businesses grow; put Americans back to work; rebuild and modernize American infrastructure; support the hiring of veterans and prevent teachers, firefighters and policemen from losing their jobs. He calls it the American Jobs Act of 2011. But instead of thinking about how ambitious, timely, opportunistic, idealistic, costly, brilliant or whatever-adjective-you-like this bill is, I keep thinking, is that really the best name they could think of? Where is the political spin we’re all so used to? Where is the name that gives rise to an emotion that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the bill itself?

Despite the lackluster name, there has already been a whirlwind of political theater surrounding the American Jobs Act. But imagine how much more interesting the headlines would be if Obama had given us a name with a little more emotion behind it. This is, after all, from the man who brought us “Yes We Can.” At least the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 had some meat and creativity to it. This reminds me a little of the time I had to explain to my sister that “Macbeth Essay” was not an acceptable title for her high school English thesis.

George W. Bush and his advisers had a few notable attempts at packaging legislation underneath pretty bows. It couldn’t have been easy for congressmen to issue official statements in opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act. (What, do you want to leave children behind?) We got past that of course, and the program was heavily criticized from multiple corners, but I still think it’s a great example of how branding works in politics. Of course Bush had his duds too. Does anyone remember the Energy Act or the Bankruptcy Reform Acts, both in 2005? Exactly.

Another classic take on legislative positioning is to think up a name that despite sounding awkward when said in its entirety makes an acronym so clever, most people forget what the bill is about. A great example of this is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act didn’t pass, but what a name! But the top prize for the acronym name trick has to go to one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in the past decade: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act). That is such a clever name that most people have probably forgotten it is an acronym. I bet it took several days and several boxes of pizza for a group of legislative assistants to come up with that name.

It may turn out that this simple, unassuming name is more effective than the clever ones. But it has also already hit a bump in the road. Obama and his team apparently forgot to ask a Democratic member of Congress to actually submit the bill for consideration. So Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert was free to help his own brand by submitting a bill to the House, named (what else?) the American Jobs Act.  Instead of using this moment to rename his bill, Obama got Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to introduce his own American Jobs Act. If either bill makes it to the other chamber of Congress, the politicians involved will face another branding opportunity. Maybe we should all tweet suggestions to @whitehouse. But it is very possible that neither version of the American Jobs Act will go anywhere—after all, the name is pretty terrible.

Now, I think I’d better brainstorm six or seven more possible titles for this blog post. CJP

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