Win ugly or lose pretty: do you agree?

I read a juicy article Hard-Nosed Advice From Veteran Lobbyist: “Win Ugly or Lose Pretty” that exposed a speech by a political consultant, Rick Berman, that remarkably, offended one of the participants enough to cause a leak to the public.

The full transcript is here

If you love preserving your independence of mind, get angry when secretly manipulated, and want to learn a bunch of tricks of the trade, you’ll want to read the whole thing!

Here are some highlights I found worth making note of.

Public opinion versus public judgment

Berman makes a point of distinguishing between public opinion and public judgment. He focuses on how to influence public judgment when the war cannot be won on opinion. Opinion is good to influence when possible, of course, but judgment is what actually matters, because it is the act of deciding to vote for some policy because of some facts.

Offense versus defense

Berman advocates always being on the offense, not defense. Being on defense is reacting to someone else. All students of psychology know that reacting is very poor tactics, because it leaves the framing of a situation up to the opponent, and therefore gives the opponent the advantage as far as natural human cognitive bias.

For example: in order to prevent change, throw around a lot of information and hypotheticals about what could happen upon change, in such a way as to confuse people and get them into a state of “I don’t know who to believe”. You want to make it sound like a possible tie to be broken. Because then by default, the psychological tendency is to give up and not decide, because “People are not prepared to get aggressive and in moving one way or another”. Therefore, the status quo remains, and the status quo is a win for the side that wants to prevent change.

Also, apparently it’s good to toss in children and animals to make one’s opponents seem cartoonish and not to be taken seriously. Also, these kinds of images or videos are popular, helping the spread of such material.

And “I like to use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side.”

Common knowledge

Berman says that the goal is not to just send a message out there but to make it “common knowledge”, something that people just assume because they heard it somewhere enough (completely independently of its truth, of course). And not just somewhere, but “enough times from enough different places”. It’s important to make it look like the message came from different sources, hence the “different places”. (Nobody will be fooled if they know exactly where the message came from and that it came from one mastermind.)

Jack Hubbard on diminishing moral authority

Diminishing moral authority of the opposition means winning through making the other side lose. (Jack Hubbard took over from Rick Berman to speak at this point.)

One obvious way is to go personal. Rip apart the personal lives of people on the opposition. For example, the left-wing Congressman who is discovered to have a large investment in the energy industry: the public enjoys exposing hypocrisy.

“We have a section on every single activist. Their rap sheets, their criminal records that they have. We’re really making this personal.”

And “engaging unique or third party messengers to get involved on this stuff.”

“The public really does have a celebrity worship culture. But…there is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle.”

Rick Berman on emotions and FLAGS

Berman reminded the audience that some did not want to go offensive in that nasty way, but you have to “win ugly or lose pretty”. “I was convinced you could not get into people’s heads and convince them to do something as easily as you could get into their hearts or into their gut to convince them to do something.” It’s all about emotions. His acronym FLAGS:

In the particular campaign he was describing, he deliberately wanted to tap fear and anger. Because “we’re not going to get people to like the oil and gas industry over the next few months”.

Endless war

Berman reminded his audience that “this is an endless war”. Winning one battle is not enough because the opposition will keep trying win; it does not think of any single loss as a loss for the cause, but just “haven’t won yet”.

Berman used the metaphor “natural enemy”: the Sierra Club has no “natural enemy”. It is hard to fight against something that does not have a natural enemy.

How not to be found out

“We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors… we’ve been doing this for 20 something years”.

Study the other side

Good quote from Berman: “I studied what the other side did to be successful and then translated it into how businesses can use those tactics”.

Always aim for the middle

“We’re always aiming with our messages for the people in the middle. I don’t try to appeal to the people who already believe in us. And I don’t try to convince people who are never going to agree with me, so I’m always playing the middle.”


People like Rick Berman are master psychologists. Whether you agree with his tactics or not, know them and know that they are effective. Now it’s your turn:

Disclaimer: Berman’s messages have no effect on me; I am not his intended “middle” audience.

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