Politics and Platitudes: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

A recent TV ad from a Republican group called opportunitylives.com in North East Ohio has been getting my proverbial goat. Not, I should add, simply because it’s from Republicans but because it appears to say absolutely nothing that helps me differentiate their position from that of anyone else. Nothing. The entire ad is simply a sequence of soporific sentences playing over insipid images of smiling people, families, heath care professionals, workers, and so on. All that’s missing are puppies and kittens.

Captain Obvious

So take a look at the transcript I took from the ad and imagine for each phrase what the opposite claim might be:

Republicans believe in a society open to all; where government stays out of our way; where families can get ahead; where opportunity lives; where good schools are available to anyone; where good jobs are there for the hard-working; where every one of us has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a better and more secure future. There are people who still believe opportunity still lives in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

Let me help make the point a little more obvious by providing you with the possible antithetical marketing copy:

Republicans believe in a society closed to all; where government stands in our way; where families can fail; where opportunity is stifled; where good schools are available to only a few; where good jobs are not there for anyone; where no-one has the opportunity to succeed; and where all can look forward to a worse and more dangerous future. There are people who still believe opportunity is dead in America, and we call ourselves, Republicans.

If you prefer this version of the ad, then you’d have to be close to bat-shit crazy and the sort of person who wears one of those special shirts that ties your arms at the back. And the reason the antithetical prose sounds so bad is that the original is nothing more than a set of vapid platitudes. When the negative version of a claim sounds stupid or is plainly false, then you can pretty much bet that the claim is a platitude.

A platitude can be defined as “a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound” (Dictionary.com), “a banal, trite, or stale remark” (Merriam-Webster), or “A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful” (New Oxford American Dictionary). More often than not, a platitude simply states the obvious and so would be better off not having been uttered [1]. In the world of Marketing, a good sales pitch avoids platitudes like the plague. 

Of course, bad Marketing and Politics are crammed so full of platitudes that you have to wonder if there’s a computer spewing out the copy, because surely there’s no sane human doing it? And if you want to spot a platitude, here are two simple tests you can apply:

A: The “What Would the Other Dude Say?” Test

Imagine that the statements being made were uttered or written by your competitor, nemesis, or arch-enemy. Would they make the same claims? Well, in the example above, if you change the word “Republican” for “Democrat,” “Libertarian,” “Communist,” or “Monster Raving Loony Party Supporter,” you bet your patootie they’d agree. And if that’s the case, then there’s no differentiation and therefore it says nothing of substance. Now if the phrase, “where everyone can carry a semi-automatic and a hand grenade into a Chuck E. Cheese” is include in the list of beliefs, then that’s not going to be OK with everyone, so it’s not a platitude.

B: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

If you read a claim that makes you want to reply, “Well no shit, Sherlock” then it’s a platitude. So if a law firm says, “We offer a professional service,” well no shit, Sherlock! Or if a printing firm offers “high quality prints,” then no shit, Sherlock! When someone claims to offer something that is inherent or implied in the service, then there’s a no-shit-Sherlock moment ahead.

No shit, Sherlock

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between a platitude and a cliché. To some extent, a cliché might be thought of as a platitude that refuses to die. A platitude states the obvious and a cliché states the commonplace.

New platitudes can be created every day but clichés have to stand the test of time. When a company is creating a Mission Statement [2] sometimes it ends up as an exercise in saying nothing but in a new way. Here’s one you might have heard some years ago: Respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. This was from the company called Enron, which was one of the most notorious business scandals in American history and is considered by many historians and economists alike to be the unofficial blueprint for a case study on White Collar Crime. It’s also an example of a crime against vocabulary for creating such a miserably loose mission statement

Avoiding platitudes is always a good thing. But as we in the US move closer to the next Presidential election – and hey, it’s only a year away! – I can guarantee that the platitudes will be coming thicker and faster as we hurtle headlong to November 8, 2016. Set your No Shit Sherlock phaser to stun.

[1] With a platitude, not only is there a stating of the obvious but it’s also done in such as way as to have the appearance of being profound or wise. Facebook is full of such pre-digested pabulum that, sadly, spreads like linguistic herpes, passed on by well-meaning but ultimately uncritical people who think that quoting something that sounds smart also makes them sound smart. It doesn’t. Platitudes also seem to aspire to taking on a moral dimension, presumably to reinforce the semblance of profundity.

[2] A Mission Statement is supposed to be a clear and succinct representation of a business’s purpose, which should incorporate socially meaningful and measurable criteria that address concepts such as the moral/ethical position of the company, its public image, the market it serves, the product and services it offers, and expectations of growth and profitability – if you want to stay in business. Alas, a Mission Statement can become so generic that is wanders into the Platitude Latitudes and says essentially nothing, or becomes a boiler-plate for ANY company in the world. A mission statement such as “To combine aggressive strategic marketing with quality products and services at competitive prices to provide the best value insurance for consumers” is about as broad as you can get – and by the way. it’s from Aflac.

4 responses to “Politics and Platitudes: The “No Shit, Sherlock” Test

  1. Good, interesting, and informative. Thanks.

  2. Sadly Russell, you’re missing the point – and the ad copy you posted is probably quite effective.

    The copy isn’t aimed at you, the center-left Brit who knows the differences between Karl Marx & Che and it’s not aimed at me, the (not-so-center)-right business owner who can distinguish Adam Smith from Reagan.

    In this case, it’s not aimed at Democrats, Socialists, or even moderates at all: and it will never cause any of them to become Republicans.

    It’s a turnout piece. In this case a pretty up-beat, bland one. Its audience is Republicans, pure and simple, and it’s there to remind them that their party has the same fears as they do, and will work hard for what they believe in.

    By listing the things Republicans are “for” and “believe in,” they acknowledge that most of their core voters believe that those things are in danger. They see government intrusion, they see the inability to get good schooling, they see the lack of good jobs for their kids (and maybe themselves). The ad implies that if Republicans were running things, all of these fears would be, to some degree, less of a concern. It also implies that Democrats (who are not Republicans) do not share these concerns–but it does so in a subtle way that won’t come across as an attack ad.

    Whether these fears are justified or not, and whether Republicans are going to be any better is, of course, moot. This isn’t an argument, and it’s not exposition: it’s pure political propaganda. And before everyone starts to wretch, remember, political propaganda isn’t good or bad — propaganda sold war bonds and defeated the Axis Powers (twice). It helped win the Cold War and helped people to “Keep Calm” in our worst hours. It also fed stereotypes for decades and brought out our worst. It’s not good or evil as a writing style, it just can’t be judged as an argument.

    For a perfect example of what I mean, please take the time to watch this brilliant scene from Thank you for Smoking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLS-npemQYQ

    PS: For a much LESS subtle ad on the other side that fails all your points and was probably a good turnout piece, check out Paul Ryan throwing granny off the cliff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGnE83A1Z4U


    • Good point there about the intent of the post as opposed to the content. In truth I was more more interested in the content from the perspective of its intrinsic meaning as being rather – and I’ll use your word because it fits well – bland. As we know, all text can be read and interpreted at different levels, and at a political level, I’d agree with you about its value as a “turn out” piece. Propaganda is certainly most effective when it works at an emotional level, and the text presented here along with the imagery can’t really fail because it can’t be gainsaid. The fact that it could be used in boiler-plate fashion for ANY group or position reinforces its value more as propaganda than fact. Thanks for the link to “Thank You For Smoking,” which is a great movie! The Paul Ryan granny tossing is funny but as it’s not a platitudinous presentation it’s not a “No Shit, Sherlock” instance. And by way of a thank you for the “Smoking” clip, here’s one on “how to get the answer you want from a government survey” from the classic UK comedy “Yes Minister” – which was a favorite of the late Margaret Thatcher, who was possibly slightly to the right of Ronald Reagan 😉 https://youtu.be/G0ZZJXw4MTA

  3. Dear speech dudes, I would like to be able to include some of your paragraphs from this post in a pamphlet I’m writing about critical thinking, aimed at high school kids. Is there any chance you could put this post under a Creative Commons BY-SA license? Information is here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

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