Why Herman Cain’s 999 was the clearest idea in the campaign. (Until sex came along…)

There is no better example of the undeniable power of a “Vivid Idea” than the rapid rise of Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain. He came from the bottom of the pack and rose to the top position because of one wordless idea called 9-9-9.

Visually, here is what happened:

The rise of Cain and 999By creating a simple “Vivid” idea, Cain instantly drowned out all the blah-blah-blah.

The Rise

In August, Cain was languishing with 5% of the Republican vote. (Sources listed below.) During the Aug. 11 debate at Iowa State he said little of substance and was largely ignored in after-debate analyses.

At the September 7 debate held at the Reagan Library — the first debate in which Texas Governor Rick Perry participated — Cain promoted his idea of a “9-9-9 Tax Plan.” Although most post-debate analyses focused on the heated battles between leading candidate Mitt Romney and the pugnacious Perry, the shocking simplicity of Cain’s seemingly hair-brained 9-9-9 scheme stuck. By the end of the month, Cain had risen in the polls to 9%, putting him in position #3.

In October Cain hit it home. At the October 11 debate in Dartmouth, he hammered 9-9-9 hard, sucking all other air out of the room. By the October 18 debate in Las Vegas, Cain’s simple wordless plan had forced all other candidates to his turf — and the into the embarrassing position of desperately seeking equally simple number schemes. A week later, Cain hit 26% in the polls, taking the lead from Romney. Once prominent candidates Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and even Perry were left in the dust, scrambling to get attention again.

But there was no more attention to be had. The sheer audacity of a simple non-verbal image called 9-9-9 made everything else sound like so much blah-blah-blah.

The Point

Whether 9-9-9 makes any sense in the real world or could ever work as the actual tax code is irrelevant. Whether Herman Cain has what it takes to be President is beside the point. The issue is this: the guy is trying to get elected and he knows how to market an idea — and right now, in a political climate overwhelmed with meaningless blah-blah-blah, the clearest, most word-free idea gets heard the loudest. The Vivid idea wins.

The 6-point Vivid Analysis of 9-9-9

To me, a true Vivid Idea exhibits 6 clear attributes. I call them the Vivid FOREST:

The Vivid ForestF = Form. O = Only Essentials. R = Recognizable. E = Evolving. S = Spans Differences. T =Targeted. 

Let’s quickly run Cain’s 9-9-9 through the FOREST and see what makes it so powerful.

F = Form. A Vivid idea has shape.

9-9-9 has perfect visceral form. Its simplicity, symmetry, repetition, and visual nature give the concept an undeniable shape. That shape sticks in our mind in an unforgettable way. The lesson: If you can give your idea form, no one will be able to overlook it.

O = Only Essentials. A Vivid idea can be explained in a nutshell.

9-9-9 states an entire idea using only the essentials, the ultimate visual-verbal sound bite. We don’t have to know any more about it to know whether we are intrigued or not. The lesson: If you an state your entire idea with nothing more than the essentials, everyone will be drawn in for closer look.

R = Recognizable. A Vivid idea is one we have seen before.

We’ve all seen 9-9-9 before: it’s the price of a pizza. Every retailer knows that $9.99 may be only one cent less than a dollar, but it costs infinitely less in the mind of a stressed consumer. The lesson: If you can make your idea look like something we have seen before, we will know exactly how to think about it — even before we know exactly what it is.

E = Evolving. A Vivid idea is one that changes over time.

Here is where 9-9-9 gets shaky. 9-9-9 is so new that there hasn’t been time for it to sink in. We don’t know how it will stand up to economic scrutiny (although initial analyses indicate that in its regressive nature, 9-9-9 will actually cost most lower-and-middle-class taxpayers more) nor has Cain been effective in explaining how the plan replaces existing taxes. The lesson: If you can keep your idea flexible enough to account for ongoing changes without becoming undermined, we will come to believe in it more and more.

S = Spans Differences. A Vivid idea accounts for opposing perspectives.

9-9-9 fails in the spanning differences attribute. As a complete replacement for the existing tax code, 9-9-9 throws out the existing fiscal baby with the bathwater. Yes, everyone agrees that our tax code needs a serious rewrite, but until Cain shows how his plan would work with differing perspectives, it chokes on second bite.  The lesson: only if your idea can clearly illustrate how it accounts for opposing views — bypassing them, integrating them, or eviscerating them — does it become undeniable.

T =Targeted. A Vivid idea matters to me.

In targeting, 9-9-9 takes the cake. Cain recognizes better than any other Republican candidate the stress being felt by the average American and recognizes the people’s need to see action, not words. 9-9-9 is directly targeted to all who are fed up with the blah-blah-blah of candidates doing political business as usual. And for that reason alone, 9-9-9 feels like a winner. The lesson: know your audience.

The Vivid Score is…

On the Vivid FOREST scale, 9-9-9 scores a solid 4.5 out of 6. Probably good enough to get through the primaries. Not enough to win the Presidency.

If that is still even in the cards…

The Fall?

In late October, two separate allegations of sexual harassment surfaced from Cain’s past — and the conversation changed again. Since then, 9-9-9 has been forgotten as all focus has shifted to the unelectable issue of sexual misconduct and whether Cain can survive in the polls at all.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Herman Cain

Only one thing can trump the vivid power of a message like 9-9-9: sex. With allegations of sexual harassment arriving, even 9-9-9 is forgotten. Oops, Herman: not even the most vivid idea can beat our limbic brain.

Only the next few weeks will tell, but the lesson is clear: in the battle between blah-blah-blah and a Vivid idea, Vivid will always win. But in the battle between any idea and sex, sex will always win. Regardless of how smart we think we are, fighting off our limbic brain is never easy.


For more on Vivid Thinking, Vivid ideas, and the Vivid FOREST, see my new book, “Blah-Blah-Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work” at www.danroam.com






6 thoughts on “Why Herman Cain’s 999 was the clearest idea in the campaign. (Until sex came along…)

  1. Hey Dan,

    This is one of the most visually interesting blog posts I have ever read ;) You support your message with relevant images that communicate a lot of information, and a simple word (FOREST).

    I’m looking forward to reading your book.


  2. Dan, man… that was brilliant.

    A clear, simple, concise explanation of what happened on the political landscape. It makes so much sense.

    The punchy ending about how sex trumps all was pretty awesome too :D

    This leads some credibility towards using ‘sex’ to ‘sell’.

    Marketers sometimes leverage the most potent and clear attention-getter (sex), and wrap it around their core idea. (I imagine this can be done well and upliftingly or be abused and scammy.)

    P.S. In all this politics, was there no mention of your blahblahmeter? Did I miss it? :)

    Rock on, sir.

  3. Dear Dan:
    This is one of the most effective demonstrations and expressions of the power of visual thinking and your ideas I’ve ever seen.

    It fascinates me to watch the way you continue to educate while building your brand.
    Best wishes, Roger

  4. I think your explanations are eloquent and insightful but I have to admit I’m confused because I thought 9-9-9 was so gimmicky that it hurt him.

    Perhaps this is just the difference between those who find ‘cool’ vs. ‘smart’ appealing.

    But I remain a big fan of your work and continue to push them at our Meetup Business Book discussion groups.

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