The name game

It's the name of the bill that matters — not what it would do

One of the bigger clashes under the Gold Dome this season is expected to be fought over House bill 23, an abortion bill better known as the Woman's Right to Know Act. Given its innocuous name, one might imagine it seeks to safeguard women's access to information about the procedure.

As Georgia's version of a pro-life bill that's already turned up in several other states, HB 23 actually seeks to discourage women from exercising their rights by creating one more layer of inconvenience for those seeking an abortion. But you'd never know it from its name.

That's the beauty of a legislative tactic that falls under the heading of what political scientists term "message politics." The theory goes that laws and public-policy initiatives, just like any other product, are easier to sell when attractively packaged and given a catchy, upbeat name.

For example, when the words "Healthy Forests Initiative" were mentioned during the State of the Union address, how many Americans realized that George W's proposal would open up the woods to logging companies? If the speech had been shown on VH1's "Pop-Up Video," it's a fair bet the thought balloon would've read: "We'd see fewer forest fires if we didn't have all these pesky trees."

Rusty Paul, a former Georgia GOP party head and ex-state senator who now runs his own marketing firm in Alpharetta, agrees that savvy politicians recognize the value of bill-naming.

"It's politically calculated to generate a favorable response among people who may barely be paying attention," he says. "Plus, it looks good on campaign literature and it makes it tougher for someone to attack your legislation. If you passed a 'truth in labeling' law, we'd probably see a lot of politicians think twice about their bills."

And it's not just Republicans who have discovered this marketing strategy. Consider the Intractable Pain Treatment Act, a 1997 Georgia House bill introduced by Democrats that sought to ease the agony of cancer patients and others suffering from horrible pain. And it would have — by prohibiting hospitals from refusing to treat those whose pain could only be alleviated with controlled substances. Fair enough, but why wasn't it called the "Medical Marijuana Act"? Because that would've been a tougher sell.

"It becomes more difficult to oppose a bill when it carries a label that has a positive spin to it," explains Bruce Newman, professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago. "It's a good strategy."

Last spring, Newman launched the quarterly Journal of Political Marketing, which focuses on the ways politicians, mainly on the national level, package their policies for maximum marketability. He cites Bill Clinton's failed Health Care Reform juggernaut and Newt Gingrich's brainchild, the Contract with America, which was shaped almost as much by extensive polling to feel out public support as by GOP principles.

The trend toward message politics is not necessarily a new one, notes Emory University political science professor Randy Strahan, who says it dates at least to 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt unveiled his "Square Deal" to end a crippling coal miners' strike. Although the plan favored the miners over the mine owners, neither the industrialists nor Roosevelt's political foes were willing to challenge a proposal whose very name evoked fairness and trust.

But message politics have never been so obviously at work as in the Bush II administration, as guided by its marketing mastermind, Karl Rove. Exhibit A is the Patriot Act, which would have us believe that True Americans have little use for the Bill of Rights.

And nearly every time George Bush II steps up to a podium, behind him is a screen bearing a repeated phrase intended to subtly affect how his words are received — and remembered — by his TV audience. Recent examples include "Strengthening America's Economy," "Protecting the Homeland" and "Corporate Responsibility."

"In politics, there's a thin line between marketing and propaganda," DePaul's Newman says.

The name game shows no sign of losing steam under Georgia's Gold Dome, where lawmakers — especially those on the right fringe — brazenly incorporate suggested titles into the text of their bills. Already this session, we've seen:

- The Defense of Scouting Act, which actually seeks to defend institutionalized homophobia.

- The Baby's Right to Know Act, which would require unmarried mothers to name their child's father.

- The Due Process and Equal Protection Restoration Act, a grand title for a ludicrous piece of legislation that would require a woman wanting an abortion to first secure a grand jury indictment against her fetus.

"Just because it has a pretty title doesn't mean it's a pretty bill," Paul explains. "But then, isn't that why Thomas Jefferson said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance?"