Death Tax: Empathy As A Strategic Advantage


May 2023

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In 2001, the transfer of an estate (inheritance) upon death was taxed at 55%, and $675,000 could be exempt. In 2017 the rate had changed to 40% and $5 million respectively. Did the American public suddenly feel sorry for the wealthiest 1% and the taxes that they had to pay? What changed? The answer may surprise you. 

Prior to 2001, the inheritance tax was commonly known as “the estate tax.” As you can imagine, the high tax rate was not very popular with those who had to forfeit half of the wealth bequeathed to them upon the death of their loved one. So these One Percenters took their gripes to their representatives in Congress to have the tax rate adjusted. The problem was that the Ninety-Nine Percenters were quite ok with the “estate tax,” and passing legislation to provide tax relief for the wealthy was a great way to assure that one would not get re-elected. 

Enter the communications consultant Frank Luntz, who was charged with changing the opinion of the voting public. With the change of one word, Frank accomplished this: he changed the “estate tax” to the “death tax.” 

“Estate” just sounds like a word associated with private jets, polo matches, art collections and Gucci purses. It seems excessive, and the voting public has no problem taxing excess. But “death,” that’s a different story. Death is bad. It’s a time to grieve the loss of a loved one, and why would anyone want to impose taxes on a grieving family? 

Is this manipulation? Maybe. But whatever your feelings about the ethics of this maneuver, one must admit that this is nothing short of brilliant. Mr. Luntz took an unpopular position and completely reversed it with nothing more than deft vocabulary and a keen understanding of what motivated the audience. He used empathy as a competitive advantage.  Let’s break down the key points:

Emotions Drive Human Behavior

As much as humans like to believe they are rational and logical creatures, this simply is not the case. Humans are motivated and led by their emotions. Emotions assign values and significance.

Research has shown that memories are only stored long term if there is an emotional reason to. Think about it: can you remember what you had for breakfast three weeks ago? Probably not. But if your partner broke up with you over that breakfast and you remember the tears making tiny pools on top of your pancakes…then I bet you will remember.

Additionally, most thought occurs at the subconscious level. Your brain filters out the “noise” of your environment so you aren’t completely distracted by mundane things. Your brain needs some sort of emotional input to take notice and assign meaning to something. Without emotions, everything would be equally important—or unimportant. Emotional connection matters.


Facts and Reason Don’t Change Minds

Have you ever watched an argument where both sides are presenting lots of facts and figures, yet no one changed their minds? I would venture to guess that in fact, the more data  presented, the more each side dug their heels in to defend their position.

Despite the commonly held belief that people act on their response to data and facts, the truth is the exact opposite. People act. And then they look for reasons to justify their behavior. This is commonly referred to as confirmation bias.

The takeaway is that in order to change someone’s mind, you have to change how they feel about it first.


Knowing Your Audience Is Not Enough….You Have to Feel It

You can read all the books about Paris, but you don’t really know what it is like until you have been there. The same is true for your audience. You can look at mounds of demographic research and data to get inside someone’s brain, but until you connect with them through the heart, you won’t really know them.

Luntz spent hours talking to his audience to really get to know them and to find the perfect words to stir emotions inside of them. There’s no substitute for looking someone in the eye and really understanding how they feel.

About EX Squared

We see a world where digital innovation drives buyer experiences. We want to demystify the digital experience by shouldering complexity and providing a clear picture of how digital experience implementation can future-proof business. If you’re looking to launch your next big project, get in touch with EX Squared today to see how we can work together.

EX Squared is a creative technology agency that creates digital products for real human beings.