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Can a Campaign Slogan Ever Be More Than the Usual Bullshit Spin?

Politicians’ one-line pitches can be whimsical, wide of the mark and often plain weird — but whether they’re fooling anyone is another matter

Though it was a lifetime ago, I remember the day the campaign took over our home. I was 13 years old and my dad was standing in a nationwide election to become head of his union. That Sunday morning, as he, my mum, a couple of volunteers and I unpacked box after box of bright yellow leaflets, posters and buttons, I knew for sure that he had it in the bag — I’d gotten my first look at the three words his team had settled on for his marquee message, and seeing it over and over again, emblazoned across all the canvassing material, it was like a magic spell had been cast.

The phrase, set in a solid typeface and a righteous red, was striking and clever and brimming with a swagger that the postal and telecommunication workers of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would surely find impossible to resist. “BOURN TO LEAD” it said. Because, you know, that was our name: Bourn. It was destiny, competence and a cheeky tabloid newspaper headline all at once. This was going to be the banner dad campaigned under, and with slick punning chops like that, who could argue with it?

A few weeks later the results came in, and it turned out that smart wordplay wasn’t the mass Jedi mind trick I’d assumed it would be. He lost the election he’d been strongly favored to win, and one of the things this stinging episode left me with — aside from a loss of innocence and approximately 2,000 “Bourn to Lead” buttons, which ended up being stashed out of sight in my bedroom closet — was a lasting allergic reaction to political slogans of any kind.

A blunt instrument of mass communication, the political slogan does little to disguise the fact that its main job is to manipulate people; it’s no secret that slogans are the Everest summit of all known bullshits. But precisely what species of bullshit are they? Pointless and feeble bullshit? Or persuasive and dangerous bullshit? Whether it’s “Change You Can Believe In,” “Make America Great Again,” “Stronger Together,” “Compassionate Conservatism” or any other combination of abstract words you can autogenerate simply by handing $1 million or so to a political consultancy firm in Washington, D.C., it sometimes seems that all slogans are arbitrary froth — semiotic surrogates for whichever cause they represent, where the actual words have been voided of any of their original, literal meanings; just like with brand names or band names (because who, apart from small children, ever pictures actual insects when they see the words “The Beatles”?). 

But perhaps the opposite is also true: That, when deftly targeted, they really can carry a meaningful message out to voters and, drilled into our frontal lobes through relentless repetition over the course of an election cycle, do actually hold the power to swing the results one way or another. Are we way more suggestible than we might like to think to a crude form of mass hypnotism?

As the presidential campaign wheels begin to clank up a gear in what’s likely to be one of the weirdest election years in U.S. history, it’s worth taking a look at just how potent these mantras are, what makes some slogans more effective than others and all the ways we might actually be vulnerable to their dumb voodoo.

Identity Politics

According to one expert, “Bourn to Lead” might have had a bit of purchase after all. “It’s a good slogan,” says Darren Lilleker, professor of political communication at the U.K.’s University of Bournemouth. “Lines like that are memorable, they’re catchy, they have a kind of ring to them,” and, he says, if they incorporate the name of a well-known personality they can resonate even more.

It’s certainly true that some of the more celebrated slogans have been riffs on names. “Feel the Bern” is a definite keeper for posterity. And one of the most fondly remembered in the U.S. canon is, of course, “I Like Ike,” a phrase that outgrew Dwight D. Eisenhower and his landslide of 1952 and has since come to stand for a whole generational mood of post-war optimism. Not only that, but, nearly seven decades later, the phrase is still cultural shorthand for the general idea of an all-conquering campaign slogan. Ike-onic, you might say.

Name-focused zingers don’t always work so well, of course. “All the Way with Adlai” did Eisenhower’s opponent, Adlai Stevenson, little good that year — worse, it might well have given the impression that, when faced with a revered war hero, a play on their man’s name was the only thing his campaign team had to work with (despite this, the Democrats doggedly stuck with the trope in later years, successfully going “All the Way” with both JFK and LBJ in the following decade). 

A twist on a name and nothing else is essentially a tautology, which offers voters precious little about the person and what they stand for — Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’s slogan of 1968, “Who but Hubert?”, was a very clever play on words, but probably not what was needed to command attention in a summer overshadowed by violent protests, political assassinations and the Vietnam War.

Nevertheless, that cute-jingle style was characteristic of an era when it seemed every advertising line had to land its brand with a wink and a rhyme. In fathoming the influence of the modern political slogan, says Lilleker, “We can’t ignore the fact that America was the birthplace of the advertising industry.” Prior to focusing on the psychology of democracy and writing books such as Political Communication and Cognition, Lilleker led his university’s marketing communications department, and he sees the evolution of campaign slogans as closely aligned to the rise of Madison Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s. “When I think of slogans, I think back to memorable straplines in advertisements,” he says. “People like [British ad-industry gurus] the Saatchis, who have worked with the U.K.’s Conservative Party for many years — they have that sense of how to sell something: ‘What are the people looking for? What are they going to buy? And how do we capture all of that in three or four words?’”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence in that case that “I Like Ike” is the political meme that’s etched most deeply into America’s collective memory, since it was the first presidential campaign to make use of TV ad spots. In 1952, the bullish agency Ted Bates, pioneers of brash marketing via the new medium, muscled a reluctant Eisenhower on to schedules nationwide, and even recruited Walt Disney’s brother Roy to base an animated cartoon on their slogan, branding their candidate with the same homespun hard-sell as other 1950s products like Lucky Strike and Colgate.

Poetry of the Possible

Another reason that slogan in particular might have stuck is that the song itself was composed by one of the greatest Tin Pan Alley alumni of all time: Irving Berlin, who penned such eternal earworms as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Putting on the Ritz” and “White Christmas.” Not his finest work, perhaps, but, in fact, sloganeering has a good deal more in common with songwriting than is immediately apparent, and Eisenhower’s maverick Mad Men were by no means the first to see vote-winning value in a catchy chorus.

Twenty years previously, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats had co-opted the popular song “Happy Days Are Here Again” to serve as the anthem for FDR’s 1932 campaign, casting him as the optimistic antidote to both the Great Depression and Prohibition. And upbeat pop tunes have been similarly mined for polemic potential in more recent elections: The Clinton-Gore ticket adopted Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” when it was played at the 1992 Democratic Convention (cannily capturing Baby Boomer hearts along the way); the 1993 British No.1 hit “Things Can Only Get Better” shot back into the U.K. charts in 1997 thanks to Tony Blair’s Labour Party using it throughout their landslide-winning campaign; and, in a particularly bizarre example, supporters of recent Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn began chanting his name to the tune of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” in the run-up to the U.K.’s 2017 general election — and for the next two years the indie-goth refrain, “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” became the party’s unofficial and slightly sinister battle anthem.

For magnificently unhip politicians, it’s usually a safer bet to hijack existing hits than have campaign songs written directly for them. Here’s an illustration of what can go wrong with that approach, in a ballad for the 1976 Carter campaign that sounds an awkwardly wistful note, somewhere between Jimmy Webb and Joe Exotic:

In the days before TV and radio, setting slogans to music was one of the few effective ways to broadcast a consistent message to popular audiences beyond the limited reach of newspapers — and in the U.S. in particular, campaign songs were a central part of presidential races throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Amid the clamor of the momentous 1860 presidential campaign, for example, supporters of Abraham Lincoln could be heard singing, “Oh ain’t I glad I joined the Republicans, joined the Republicans, joined the Republicans…” to the tune of the children’s song “The Old Gray Mare.” In 1872 both Democrats and Liberal Republicans went from state to state impugning the reputation of incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant with a ditty about “Grant the Drunkard,” while in the vicious 1884 election Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine traded scandalous insults via elaborate rhyming couplets.  

As an easily understood means of communication “songs of the day” fulfill a useful role in political discourse, says Lilleker, magnifying a personality or a message in the way poetry would have done so in the rhetoric of previous centuries. “Lots of folk songs have been passed down and the choruses carry on through the years,” he tells me. “They can get in people’s heads, and can capture [their imagination].”

In 1908, William Howard Taft had an unlikely folk hit when his supporters followed up the winning campaign songs of his predecessor (which included “We’re Ready for Teddy Again” and the oddly 1960s-sounding “You’re All Right, Teddy”) with a message that reached hard for a rhyme, and with hindsight seems like very unwise advice, given that he remains, by at least 80 pounds, America’s heaviest ever president — “Get On the Raft With Taft”:

Bullet-Points for Ballots

Poetic devices such as rhyme and meter can do much more than help a key phrase lodge in the memory — with the right sort of emphasis, punch and concision, the precise way a slogan is worded can also lend it a sense of authority, or urgency.

“You would have thought he would have had quite a good career as a copywriter,” said former British MP Rory Stewart last October on the influential podcast Talking Politics. He was referring to Boris Johnson’s current chief adviser Dominic Cummings, an ex-nightclub door manager who in recent years has become the most talked-about Machiavellian operator in British politics. Stewart recalled witnessing Cummings’ “extraordinary ability to generate three-word phrases” in a London restaurant in the summer of 2019, a period when Stewart and two other politicians were vying with Johnson to become leader of the ruling Conservative Party. “What you’ve got to say,” Cummings had advised him over dim sum, “is that there are only three things that need to be done: ‘Get Brexit Done. Beat Jeremy Corbyn. Reunite the Country.’”

At the time, Stewart was aware that Cummings had been meeting with all three of his rivals too, and during the week that followed, he was surprised to see each of the candidates, like clockwork, tweet, “There are only three things that need to be done…” followed by Cummings’s trademarked triple threat. “It’s a great knack, that — to be able to generate phrases that every campaign thinks is genius,” Stewart reflected on the podcast.

Perhaps Cummings’ three-word pièce de literal résistance, though, remains the mantra that was used by Johnson and others in the 2016 campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union: “Take Back Control.” According to Lilleker, this served as a demonstration that a carefully crafted catchphrase really can cut through to have an impact in a finely balanced contest. “I personally disagree with it, but I think the Brexit campaign was absolutely brilliantly executed,” he says, “as a way of linking ideas about control — who controls the nation and personal control — together.” As part of an overall strategy, Cummings’s succinct strapline was powerful, he says, in speaking to “people who felt that their lives were out of their control and they didn’t have any kind of personal agency — and in linking that into immigration,” the thorny issue at the heart of the referendum, which was difficult for politicians to talk about directly. 

You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All

The short, sharp, to-the-point banner line reflects a dominant belief among today’s strategists that less is more when communicating with electorates. “The slogan has become increasingly simplistic,” says Lilleker, and he believes this is partly because the media landscape politicians operate in has become hugely fragmented. The rhythmical jingles of yesteryear were perfected for TV marketing, but now, he says, “there’s no clear sense of ‘If we say this in this newspaper and on this news channel everyone will see it.’”  

Instead, slogans have boiled down to terse, impressionistic blurts — “Choose Forward” (Justin Trudeau, 2019); “Let’s Do This” (Jacinda Ardern, 2017) — and that has a lot to do with the “Twitterization” of politics, says Lilleker. The fact that politicians are by now well used to tailoring their messaging to social media snippets. It’s also, he says, “part of a broader recognition that attention spans are quite low; people don’t want to hear long, complicated diatribes about politics — they want it synthesized and made easy for them.”

Whether that takes something away from politics, “and that people are possibly making bad decisions based on the quality of the slogan,” he thinks is a big question in current political science and one that’s open to debate. What it does mean, though, is that it’s tended to magnify a problem that’s always haunted the micro-pitches politicians put into the public arena — the fact that even the most inspiring lines are often devoid of any actual content. “So many of them are completely empty, and that’s one of the concerns I have with slogans,” says Lilleker. “[French President Emmanuel] Macron’s was ‘En Marche!’: ‘Forward!’ What does that mean? Obama had ‘Hope’ and ‘Change You Can Believe In’ — they’re empty, and I think Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is another example.” 

The problem, he says, is that people have very different ideas of what vague notions such as “change” and “great” should mean in practice. Short, grandiose gestures sound like decisiveness, but in reality, they’re the opposite: “People believe in the slogan, but they’re never quite sure of what the core idea is, because there’s no substance to it. They can be drawn to support something, but later feel what they end up with isn’t what they’d hoped for.”

Another effect of minimalism in messaging is that slogans are being recycled on a heavy rotation. “‘Make America Great Again’ isn’t unique to Trump,” Lilleker points out. “It was used by Ronald Reagan in 1980,” he reminds. “Forward,” meanwhile, was Obama’s airy platitude before it was Macron’s. Obama’s “Yes, We Can” of 2008 in turn owed something to Bush’s “Yes, America Can!” from four years prior. “And ‘Change…’” sighs Lilleker with a hint of exasperation. “How many campaigns use ‘Change’? Tony Blair used it, David Cameron used it, Obama used it. It’s just variations on a theme.” 

On the subject of lifted lines, it’s worth noting that “A Chicken in Every Pot,” the Republicans’ celebrated line trumpeting the prosperity of the 1920s, is actually a phrase that was first attributed to King Henry IV of France in the 1600s. Or plus ça change, as he might also have said. 

When the Slogan Isn’t Working

Even a slogan Lilleker counts among the most targeted and effective of all time — “Labour Isn’t Working,” which helped Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979, and at a time of record unemployment in Britain “captured the mood of the country” — has been recycled out of context. Mitt Romney’s campaign team repurposed it as “Obama Isn’t Working” in 2012. For him, though — perhaps because it missed the subtle pun on “labor” going on in the background of the original line, or perhaps because it just didn’t translate across time and space and cultures — it failed to land the same knockout blow.

And this illustrates what might be the secret sauce in any successful tagline. The difference between a harmless bit of oratory ornamentation and rabble-rousing rhetoric isn’t so much in the phrasing, or the alliteration, or the imagery it invokes; its power to persuade must ultimately flow from the person saying it. “The person who’s using that slogan, who is behind it,” says Lilleker, “has got to embody it.” For political branding to work, he says, “There’s got to be that resonance between the slogan and who you are and how you’re selling that message to people.”

However much of a trigger “Make America Great Again” has been for Trump detractors, that line chimed so strongly for Trump supporters in 2016 at least in part because it was consistent with his bombastic character and the inflated imagery he likes to project. “You’ve got these huge buildings with his name all over them,” says Lilleker, “all those pictures of him in front of gold lift doors. And he overpowered every one of the Republican candidates, and he overpowered Hillary Clinton in the debates — physically, and also with his jibes. It wasn’t a nice campaign. But he lived an idea of ‘greatness.’ It may not be everyone’s idea of greatness, but it was an idea. And Donald Trump wore that.”

With the right brand synergy, a slogan can act as a super-conductor for both personality and platform — but where a candidate’s public image obviously clashes with the one their slogan is trying to project, it can result in a damaging short-circuit. Having called a quick-fire election in April 2017, Britain’s then-Prime Minister Theresa May was ahead by 24 percent in the polls and expected to substantially increase her government’s majority in the House of Commons — then her team chose to campaign under the banner of “Strong and Stable Leadership.” The problem was, says Lilleker, that “throughout the campaign she proved she was neither of those things. It was mocked so much that in focus groups we did, people were calling her weak and wobbly.” 

The slogan was far from the only thing that undermined her credibility, but for opponents and the media alike it became a handy stick to beat her with; her party’s disastrous campaign cost her 13 MPs, her majority in Parliament, and ultimately, her job as leader.

Everything on the Line?

In a tumultuous round of primaries, Joe Biden has had the chance to road-test a wide range of potential slogans and branding approaches — the one with the most blow-up-in-his-face potential being December’s oddball throwback “No Malarkey!”; the frontrunner so far apparently being the half-hearted retirement-home strapline “Our Best Days Lie Ahead.” Whatever emerges as his official retort to counter “Keep America Great,” “Promises Made, Promises Kept” or any of the other continuity slogans Trump is likely to field, it’s unlikely to be the most campaign-critical decision the Biden camp makes (nowhere near as influential as who his running-mate will be, for instance). But what if it really sucks? How much is actually at stake for him if, at the big convention reveal, he fluffs that one big line?

“It’s perhaps not everything,” says Lilleker. “But whatever he chooses, he’s got to be able to go out and live it.” If he can pull off that feat of authenticity, a bumper-sticker that helps him connect could conceivably be the thing that nudges him over the line in November. If it’s a phrase that doesn’t accurately reflect his personality, his strengths or his values, there’s a chance it could backfire on him — just like Theresa May’s ill-fated “Strong and Stable,” or, worse, like the slogan used by hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

“In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right” probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was seized on by Lyndon Johnson’s strategists, who produced perhaps the best presidential campaign slapback there’s ever been, which managed to incorporate Johnson’s hard-bitten slugger reputation, Madison Avenue punch and a bit of mocking mic-drop poetry all at once. “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts” was what they came at Goldwater with, fanning fears about his apparent itchiness to deploy nuclear weapons, and it contributed to one of the biggest popular majorities in U.S. history.

But when it comes to tailoring the slogan to fit the candidate, there might also be danger in going too authentic. Whatever other circumstances produced his landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s team came up with what is surely the worst presidential campaign slogan in living memory. “A Solid Man in a Sensitive Job” might have been honest and straight-shooting, but it damned Carter with the faintest of praise and was no match for a movie star asking voters “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” and pointing up at the flag insisting “Let’s Make America Great Again.” 

Then again, times change and context is everything. If plundering the slogans of the past really is all today’s strategists have to offer their candidates, then the Democrats might want to consider exhuming that limp, understated Carter line. For Joe Biden in 2020, “A Solid Man in a Sensitive Job” might be just the ticket.