From Estate Tax to Death Tax: How to Change Public Opinion Overnight

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Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, spearheaded the messaging change from “estate tax” to “death tax” in the 1990s.

The term “death tax” had been used decades before, but it was used again at that time as Republicans sought support for its repeal.

By shifting the frame from a tax on “estates,” (which sounds like it only affects very rich people), to a tax on “death,” (which sounds like a final kick in the teeth from Uncle Sam before you die), Republicans were able to drive up support for repeal (which had always been strong).

In reality, of course, the tax only affects a tiny percentage of the population–literally less than 1% of all taxpayers.

But the messaging resonated with the public: in the subsequent years, the estate tax was lowered significantly.

In 2001, an estate could exempt up to $675,000 from the tax, and the rate was 55%. By 2017, the exemption had risen to over $5 million, and the rate had fallen to 40%.

And in 2010, the tax was even (temporarily) repealed entirely.

Whatever your politics, you have to recognize the persuasive power of word choice.

This Gallup poll from 2016 shows that the public still supported repealing the estate tax, years after the messaging change.

In fact, it was one of just two tax cutting policies that the majority of respondents supported. For the most part people supported more taxes on the rich, not less.

The words we choose to convey our message make a difference.

The glass can be “half-empty” or “half-full.”

You can buy a “really pricey car” or “a luxury automobile.”

You can present yourself as a “computer repairman” or a “tech consultant.”

You can ask your boss for a “raise” or you can ask “to take the lead on new projects and move up in the company.”

What key words are you using that, if changed, could transform your image in the minds of clients or colleagues?

Justin Aquino