Pollster Frank Luntz, Warrior with Words

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Pollster Frank Luntz in St. James's Park, London

If words are weapons, Frank Luntz is a samurai. The pollster and communications consultant has spent years shaping corporate and political messages based on focus groups and opinion surveys in all 50 states and overseas. His best-known client has been the Republican Party, for which he transformed the "estate tax" into "death tax" and helped popularize "tax relief" to replace mere "tax cuts." The Fox News contributor has compiled his insights into public opinion in a new book, What Americans Really Want... Really. He spoke with TIME about the health-care debate, the benefits of ambushing CEOs and what he learned from a focus group of Playboy Playmates.

The frustration and even rage we've seen during the debate over health-care reform has been really staggering. You talk to people for a living — did you know what kind of anger was simmering out there?
I did, and it's in my book. You can pull out paragraphs on how mad people were about pork-barrel spending, about taxes and about the lack of accountability [in Washington.] You had all these people who were mad, but there wasn't a spark that would cause them to get involved. Health care became that spark.

Now, I never dreamed that they would become so uncivil and so rude. But the town halls are exactly what I wanted to see. Those town halls, in a word, bring back accountability.

That response resembled the populist anger over the financial crisis and Wall Street bailouts. You say that even the term capitalism has now become a dirty word.
It's amazing, Washington and Wall Street are the two most hated terms in America. This is what I don't understand — you hear these Wall Street people talking about bonuses knowing that the public is outraged. They need to change the lexicon. Pay for performance. Merit pay. Alignment. There is a lexicon to connect Wall Street to those it serves, but they're not using it. I can't get the CEO organizations to listen to me: they don't want to admit mistakes.

You have lots of ideas about how the business world should adjust its language to better connect with the public. Instead of promoting "manufacturing," industrial companies should talk about "technology and innovation." Many grocery shoppers would be more drawn to "homegrown, all-natural" food than "organic" food. One company that seems to always get it right is Apple.
They understand the America of the 21st century better than any company I know. A CEO that gets it and communicates in the language of the 21st century; a marketing and advertising campaign that focuses on the products, not on the models who sell the products; products that are innovative and cutting-edge. I feel bad I've never worked for them.

You have some unorthodox methods of getting your message to corporate leaders. In the cases of UPS and Kroger, for instance, you've gone up to the CEOs and essentially ambushed them with advice. How has that worked out for you?
I'm very passionate about what I do. I will approach the CEO directly, I'll look them straight in the eye and say, "You're doing this wrong." They're always taken aback initially, and the people around them freak out. But I have gotten more business by being direct and honest than I ever got being obsequious and sycophantic.

I hate these communication people that suck up, because they're not helping anyone get anything accomplished. If you tell a CEO they're God, and they're not, you're doing them more damage.

Are there parallels to all this in the political world? Despite their rout in November, we haven't seen much rebranding within the Republican Party. What would you tell the party's leaders now?
That your language cannot go back to the 1980s because America has moved on. It's not a battle between big government and small government, it's a battle for effective government. It's a battle for accountability, responsibility and oversight.

I have to ask about the Playboy Playmates. Why did you focus group them and what did you learn about what they're looking for in a man?
Why did I focus group them? Why would a guy ask another guy that question?

Well, were you paid for it?
Was I paid? No. I welcomed the opportunity to get to know their product on an up-close and personal basis. Unfortunately, everything I had to offer was everything they didn't care about. I had the wrong car, I had the wrong watch, I had the wrong shirt, I had the wrong shoes. In the process of doing that research I figured out how ill equipped I was to interact with that very narrow sliver of American society.