When reaching out to mass audiences, you’d think that it would be important to employ one clear message that everyone will get. No ambiguity. Yet politicians don’t always follow that lead.

Sometimes, they use coded language to express sympathy with certain ideas. Like talking about crime on the surface, but in a way that has racist undertones. It’s a nudge-nudge-wink-wink, which only some groups will immediately understand.

That’s called a dog whistle. There’s a lot of talk in the air about it. Earlier this year, Merriam-Webster added it to their “words we’re watching” list. Politicians use dog whistle rhetoric to send a signal that’s distasteful to the general population, yet appeals to select segments.

Leaving aside the matter of whether this is a repugnant strategy, is it effective communications? Or does it ultimately backfire?

So what do dogs think?

Maybe there are lessons from genuine dog whistles. They produce high-frequency sounds that only canines can hear, not humans. This is a communications tool as training device.

To learn more about the tool’s pros and cons, I went to puppywire.com, a resource on everything to do with dog health, nutrition and training. The site suggests several advantages to using dog whistles. 1) It’s a Pavlovian cue. 2) It can reach dogs even when they’re far away. 3) You can customize your whistle commands. 4) You can combine whistle training with other directions to create a more complex command language.

However, PuppyWire also has a list of cons. For example:

  • Some dogs take well to whistled commands, but for others the pitch may not be unique enough for them.
  • Dogs who tend to be more fearful will have that fear reinforced, and even exaggerated.
  • Whistles can lose their value over time, unless it is a trigger for more punishment.
  • In extreme cases, a dog may react to a dog whistle with aversion, particularly if it considers it a very unpleasant or sometimes even painful stimulus.

Substitute “constituent” for “dog” and you can see how this applies to political dog whistles too.

The problem? For some politicians reinforcing and exaggerating fears isn’t the downside to this communications strategy. Sadly, it’s exactly the point.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

August 23, 2017


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