Guest post by Dr. Gary North (*)
There is a familiar saying in direct-response marketing: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” If you want to make money in advertising, you had better honor this principle.
This preference for style over substance is a major barrier to any kind of significant reform in any area of life.
How stylish is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous? Not very. It is not intended to be stylish. This model has worked for people who suffer addictions of many kinds. The program is virtually all substance, no style. It forces people to come to grips with what they really are, rather than what they would like to persuade others that they are. Until people come to grips with what they are, there really is no hope for them to be restored to sobriety. This is why they begin their presentations with this statement: “I’m an alcoholic.”
Alcoholics Anonymous does not do any advertising. It relies on face-to-face, one-on-one evangelism. It relies on people who are alcoholics on the road to recovery to go out and find other people who are alcoholics, and are not on the road to recovery, but who would like to be.
Consider local politics. There is nothing stylish about local politics. In contrast, national politics is almost entirely about style. People send enormous amounts of money to national political parties, yet the parties never deliver on any of the fundamental promises that they had made in their platform statements. The platforms pretend to be about substance, but they are part of a system that is entirely based on style.
Ultimately, substance carries the day. If you can think about the least stylish president in modern American history, it has to be Lyndon Johnson. Yet in terms of what he rammed through Congress, he was all steak and no sizzle. In contrast, there was Jack Kennedy, who was all style and no substance.
Consider George W. Bush. There was a man devoid of style. He could barely speak a sentence coherently. But he rammed through the Patriot Act, got us into two wars, and got the Congress to accept the biggest hike in government medical subsidies since Medicare: the prescription health bill. What did Bill Clinton get through? What did Obama get through? They were all about style, not substance.
Ronald Reagan was about style. He was also about substance. He did get major cuts in the top marginal income tax rates. That was his greatest triumph, and it was a big one. But he ran massive federal deficits. That was anti-substance. That destroyed the Republican Party as a serious resistance movement against unbalanced budgets.
The great modern master of both style and substance was Franklin Roosevelt. He was a revolutionary. He did not talk as though he was a revolutionary most of the time, but he was. He changed the American Republic as no president had changed it since Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was also about both style and substance. He was the greatest master of seemingly sublime rhetoric who ever occupied the White House. He also won the war, which was his goal.
In British politics, we do see the fusion of style and substance. In modern times, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher both had agendas. Both were masters of rhetoric. But they stand alone among prime ministers over the last century. Tony Blair was all style and no substance. He was Bill Clinton’s alter ego when he wasn’t Clinton’s lapdog.
Jordan Peterson has both style and substance. For an academician, he is amazingly effective in terms of rhetoric. But he has a worldview. He has a message. He is certainly a well-educated man. He is a practical man since he has had something like 25,000 hours of clinical psychiatry. He is also an enormous success. He’s a rich man because of Patreon donors.
It is always tempting to get on board a stylistic ship. But if the ship is headed for an iceberg, it is better to get on board a freighter.
One of the problems that the conservative movement has is that it has been dominated by website designers. These designers know nothing about substance. They are almost entirely style. It was a lot better when the conservative movement was paper-based. Magazine covers could have snappy images, but text is text. Other than having a readable typeface and some stock photo images, there was not much that a paper-based communications program could do to conceal a lack of substance.
With the rise of digital communications, the tendency to substitute style for substance has been almost irresistible. The one major exception is the Drudge Report. It is plain Jane. There is nothing stylistically impressive about it. It is entirely substance. The key to it is Drudge’s ability to come up with snappy headlines for his links. He is a rich man because of this ability. I like his site because you can get through it rapidly. You can get to content if you’re interested. He has all the other links at the bottom of the page that almost nobody uses. He has links to all of the opinion columns. The site is overwhelmingly substance based. But it is unique in this regard.
Dennis Prager’s Prager University YouTube videos are quite good. There is a good mixture of both style and substance. They are short and to the point.
I am impressed by the speaking style of Bill Whittle. In this video, he would have been better off to have avoided the cheesy graphics of a fire. He should have stood in front of the camera and just talked. Maybe he could have added images of book covers or headlines, but that was all he needed.
Mark Dice has a lot of humor. He adds headlines and brief videos of silly people. His humor carries the videos. We could call this style, but it is style in support of substance. Reagan also had this ability to use humor.
The best example of a successful website that is virtually all substance and no style is the Khan Academy. It was cheap to produce initially. Its videos present an intelligent man who comments on a digital blackboard. He writes on the screen and talks the student through the concept. He has over a million students around the world. He is the most successful teacher in history. If there has ever been an example of a success based on substance over style, it is the Khan Academy. It offers hope to those of us who would like to see the political, moral, and economic foundations of the modern world reverse. Unfortunately, he is not a reformer. He is simply a teacher. But he is a very good teacher. He was not trained to be a teacher. I think this is why he is such a good teacher.
If you find a nonprofit organization that is promoting something you believe in, don’t worry about the lack of style of its website. Rejoice. It means that somebody in charge of the organization has his priorities right.
In my view, the more enticing the website, the greater the likelihood that there is not going to be any substance inside that website. It means that whoever is in charge of the organization has listened to some web designer who hasn’t a clue about the content of the website, but he thinks that he can make it look neat. He will sacrifice substance for style every time. And he will charge the organization a fortune for having done this.
I realize that the average person has spent his life watching television advertising, going to snazzy websites, and spending as little time as possible reading. It is the lack of reading, above all, that separates a serious reformer from a cheerleader on the sidelines. You cannot build a reform movement on the cheerleaders. They send in a little money, or maybe not. The people who matter are the ones who are willing to sacrifice money and even time for the sake of the cause. These people have learned after years of experience that style is usually at war with substance. Only in the rarest of occasions does style supplement and support substance.
Styles come and go. What is very “in” this year may be gone next year.
Google’s search website has a little style only because of the masthead that is tied to some figure or event. The rest of it is sparse. This was by design. Google is going to be here next year and the year after.
Stick with substance, not style.
This rule applies to your career. You can afford a little bit of style. But any program of career success that focuses on style is not worth your time.
(*) Dr. Gary North passed away on February 24, 2022. His obituary, written by a close family friend, is here: Gary North, RIP.
The above article was first published here: https://www.garynorth.com/members/19499.cfm