Pop culture references diminish the power of a speech

If you watched President Obama deliver his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday night, you probably caught his reference to the AMC television drama, “Mad Men.” If not, it came in a section of the speech in which he talked about the inequality of pay between men and women.

CSPAN_SCREENSHOT“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.” (Click here to read the full transcript provided by The Washington Post.)

If you’ve never seen the program, it’s good, but it’s an acquired taste. Set in the fervent and volatile 1960s, the show is takes place amidst a Madison Avenue advertising agency where alcohol abuse, philandering and female domination are the real talents of the male characters. As the show depicts, women of the day were mostly confined to the secretarial pool, expected to have jobs only to land a rich husband. But if you hadn’t seen the show, none of that would make any sense and many people haven’t because it is only available on the AMC cable television network.

Of course, Mr. Obama is not the first politician to insert a pop culture nod into an important speech. In 2012, Ted Johnson, senior editor at Variety magazine interviewed Martin Kaplan, now founding director of USC’s Norman Lear Center but who, in 1980, worked as chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale.

“(Kaplan) included a reference to the ‘Who Shot J.R?’ cliffhanger episode on ‘Dallas;’ the program was the top-rated TV show of the time,” Kaplan told Variety. “Mondale read it out loud, his staff laughed, and the vice president turned to Kaplan and asked, ‘Who the hell is J.R.?’ Mondale read the speech anyway and the line worked.”

Early in the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney said about President Obama, “The gap between his promises and his performance is the largest I’ve seen, well, since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ’til death do we part.” Once again, the pop culture line worked with some of the audience, but still left others scratching their heads.

There are essentially three major problems with using pop culture references in any presentation, whether you are a politician or a business person. First, alluding to something in current media means your speech will end up with an extremely short shelf life. Political speeches, such as the State of the Union, should have weight and power and make a statement, not only for that moment, but for a long time to come.

Secondly, throwing in pop culture references is just lazy writing, pure and simple. This might sound somewhat opinionated, and it may well be, but writing is a craft that takes hard work and rewrite after rewrite, whether it’s the presidential inauguration or a talk at the Rotary. Speakers owe it to their audience to make each point with clear detail, not to just fill time with an inappropriately positioned laugh or hope for a singular moment of levity, particularly on a topic as important as equal pay for equal work.

Many women (and men) fought, and some died, just to get this far in gender equality. The president’s Mad Men reference was lazy and disrespectful. There were far better ways to make the point and not lose the third of the audience without cable television.

Finally, it is entirely possible the audience will completely miss the gravity of the topic if it’s overshadowed by one of these gratuitous allusions. Almost as soon as the president uttered the words, social and broadcast media became alight with talk about the Mad Men reference with far less discussion of the purpose for its inclusion.

Regardless of the audience, whether the United States Congress or a presentation for potential new business, anything that limits the long-term viability of a speech or squelches its purpose, even for an instant, is bad practice. Take the time to research the topic completely and write supportive material that stands the test of time and inspires the entire audience. Speakers who leave anyone behind in the wake of lazy writing waste everyone’s time and are not likely to be remembered for any longer than the 15-minute duration of the pop culture notation.

(For those without cable, here’s an example of Mad Men’s portrayal of the treatment of women in the 60’s.)