As a professional sloganeer, I’ve always been fascinated by U.S. presidential campaign slogans – especially what makes them tick and what makes them stick. Ever since the first modern political slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” propelled a couple of Whigs into the White House in 1840, this cherished piece of brand real estate continues to have marquee value on the national stage.
The word slogan, by the way, is derived from the expression sluagh-ghairm (pronounced slua-gherum), which is Gaelic for battle cry. A sluagh-ghairm was also a war cry or gathering cry used among the Scottish clans to rally support for their cause. They called it a slogorn.
The popularity and effectiveness of the slogans used by candidates, their parties, and supporters have greatly influenced the outcome of American presidential campaigns. In fact, history tends to bear out the fact that the candidate with the most compelling and memorable campaign slogan usually wins the election. For example, LBJ’s “The Stakes Are Too High for You to Stay at Home” from the “Daisy” television ad is considered one of the main reasons he defeated Goldwater so decisively in the 1964 election; and Ronald Reagan’s famous slogan from the 1980 campaign “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?” served as a powerful reminder of the economic woes that plagued the Carter years.
The best presidential campaign slogans are like mantras. They give us a rallying cry that encapsulates our feelings about a candidate. They connect with us on an emotional level, revealing a universal truth that hits us where we live – whether it’s our deepest hopes, greatest fears, our patriotism, or our pocketbook.
“Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!,” which became an oft-repeated mantra at Truman’s whistle stops, helped achieve his stunning come-from-behind victory in 1948; “I Like Ike” (1952) embodied the immense likeability of Eisenhower as a person; and today, “Feel the Bern” is a favorite chant among supporters of Bernie Sanders at his political rallies. There’s something to be said for grass roots expressions that capture the personality of a candidate and the spirit of a campaign. Many of them have greater sticking power than anything Madison Avenue can dream up.
It’s not surprising then that only a handful of slogans have earned a hallowed place in political sloganeering and are woven into our national fabric. After all, in a few catchy, well-crafted words, a candidate must express a compelling and persuasive idea that resonates with voters – a happy collision of personal style, political conviction, and poetic serendipity. Slogans such as “It’s Morning Again in America” aptly reflected the simple and sunny optimism that Reagan brought to the 1980 campaign; and “A ‘New Deal’ for the American People” (FDR, 1932) gave hope to a weary country ravaged by The Great Depression.
Sadly, the vast majority of slogans are merely quaint reminders of campaigns gone awry…easily forgettable and chiefly relegated to the dust heap of history. In fact, if a slogan’s goal is to distill a candidate’s brand into a cogent message that’s easy to say, easy to understand, and easy to remember, then the current crop of presidential campaign slogans is rather dull and dismally lacking in punch, pluck, and panache. The slogans also have a familiar ring to them – echoing the well-worn campaign clichés and promises of yesteryear.
Presidential contenders shouldn’t despair though. The campaign has just begun and there’s plenty of time to hone their message, if there is one, and reposition it accordingly. To juice up their brand and strengthen the bond with their audience, candidates should try to avoid making some common but critical slogan mistakes that can undermine their campaign.
Let’s take a humorous look at the presidential campaign slogans from the Class of 2016 to determine what’s lacking in them and what the candidates are really trying to say.
1. Red, White & Bland
There’s no greater sin than boring the voting public. For a slogan to be memorable, it must rise above the pedestrian and find a fun, surprising, and inventive way to express its brand. Carly Fiorina’s “New Possibilities. Real Leadership” comes across as trite corporate doublespeak. Translation: “I’d make a better CEO than The Donald.” Scott Walker’s “Reform. Growth. Safety” is about as exciting as watching paint crack and peel on the side of a Wisconsin barn, and sounds like he’s running unopposed for senior class president. Lastly, Jim Webb’s “Leadership You Can Trust” is a safe, banal, cookie-cutter slogan. They’ll probably love it at the Naval Academy, though. Translation: “I’m the only adult in the room.”
2. Send in the Clones
The goal of a slogan is to cut through the campaign clutter. Borrowing the familiar trappings of another slogan, albeit successful, may be tempting, but it’s not going to give the candidate an authentic edge. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is a total rehash of Ronald Reagan’s slogan from 1980 (“Let’s Make America Great Again”). Translation: “I’m rich, really rich…and I’m great, too.” George Pataki’s kinder and gentler slogan, “People Over Politics,” is an echo of “Putting People First” (Clinton, 1992); and Lindsey Graham’s “Ready to Be Commander-In-Chief on Day One” is awfully similar to John McCain’s “Best Prepared to Lead on Day One” from 2008. Translation: “I don’t have a domestic agenda and just want to sink your battleship.”
3. It’s All About “Me”
If a slogan appears self-centered and self-serving, it probably is. Some self-referential examples include Jim Gilmore’s “Gilmore for America” and Hillary Clinton’s “Hillary for America,” a slogan much less appealing then her earlier and more inclusive expressions, “It’s Your Time” and “This Starts with You.” Jeb Bush’s eponymous “Jeb!” may be easy to remember but it sidesteps any substantive message. It’s simply a verb meaning to run as far away from the Bushes as possible. Then we have “Kasich for Us” which sounds like John Kasich already cast the vote on our behalf. He’s really saying “You’re for me!” Finally, Chris Christie’s “Telling It Like It Is” takes the position “This is who I am, like it or lump it” or “I say what I say and I mean what I mean.” Truth be told, it means he may also tell you to shut up.
4. Promising a Rose Garden
To be believable, a slogan should avoid hyperbole and inflated rhetoric. Otherwise, it will make promises the candidate can’t possibly keep. Take Dr. Ben Carson’s “Heal. Inspire. Revive.” Dr. Ben Casey couldn’t have said it better, but he was just a television character. Dr. Ben may heal you but your insurance probably won’t cover it. Another slogan on life support is Rand Paul’s “Defeat the Washington Machine. Unleash the American Dream.” It may express a strong populist sentiment but doesn’t sound very realistic. Translation: “Send me to the White House…that’s my dream!” Then there’s Bernie Sanders, who declares “A Political Revolution is Coming.” Although refreshingly edgy, it sounds like he’s channeling Che Guevara in the jungles of Vermont. “Welcome to change on steroids” is more like it. Last but not least, Marco Rubio’s “A New American Century” tries to convince us that America’s preeminence in the world is a foregone conclusion. Nice thought…however if China finds out it’s going to start hacking the heck out of us!
5. In ? We Trust
There’s nothing wrong with invoking a higher power in a stump speech, but a campaign slogan should be unfettered by language that implies a moral choice or passes moral judgment. Bobby Jindal’s “Believe Again” sounds innocent enough but doesn’t say what we’re being asked to believe in again. Maybe it’s “Change You Can Believe In”…without the change. Mike Huckabee’s “From Hope to Higher Ground” is the most alliterative and metaphorical of the 2016 bunch, but it exudes a tinge of moral superiority. Maybe he’s saying that, unlike Clinton, he will inhale. Rick Perry’s “We Must Do Right and Risk the Consequences,” is the strangest or scariest slogan depending on how you interpret it. One could chalk it up to another “oops” moment or perhaps he means “Take a risk and vote for me…and qué será, será.” The more benign explanation is that he sees himself as the host of the new Truth or Consequences.
6. Whose Brand Is It, Anyway?
Here come the doers and problem solvers, the candidates who say they’re going to roll up their sleeves, fix what’s ailing us, and get us back on track. There’s nothing wrong with expressing a call to action in a slogan as long as it reflects the candidate’s actual brand and belief system. In Rick Santorum’s case, “Restore the American Dream for Hardworking Families” is a fine sentiment. Taken at face value, it’s clear, specific, and on point, but it’s certainly at odds with his stance on Social Security and Medicare, which he’d like to privatize, voucherize, or simply slash. By the same token, Ted Cruz’s “Reigniting the Promise for America” is sufficiently vague enough to sound promising, but, given his reputation as a firebrand, his slogan and flame-like logo appear to generate more heat than light. Translation: “Burn, baby burn!”
What do you do with slogans that are simple, succinct, clear, and positive, and still fall flat? You put them in this category, that’s what! They miss the mark because they tell their story in a common or generic way. They’re brand light and nuance-challenged. Martin O’Malley’s “Rebuild the American Dream” is a case in point. The slogan raises expectations but it’s missing a third act. Infrastructure you can believe in sounds more like it. Translation: “I didn’t tell you how much this is going to cost.” Lincoln Chafee’s “Fresh Ideas for America” suffers from a similar malady. We’re intrigued by the slogan’s promise but we’re teased with only a hint of change. Perhaps Chafee’s biggest strength lies in his name. He’s the other Lincoln. What’s not to like?
Where the Slogan Goes From Here
Looking ahead to the next election, I can’t help but wonder how this slew of slogans will thrive, merely survive, or fade away into the sunset. Eventually, we’ll be left with two candidates standing – each armed with a slogorn that attempts to communicate a clear vision and brand promise or finds itself reduced to drivel by a bunch of political consultants huddled around a table on the campaign tour bus. Since there’s no single recipe for a great campaign slogan, political sloganeers should focus on the authentic style and personality of the candidate so there’s no disconnect between the message and the man – or woman – delivering it.
Another attribute of a slogan that is sorely overlooked is originality. Candidates can still bandy about the ideas that have embraced American hopes and dreams for the last 175 years, but they need to express them in a fresh way. To be slogan-worthy, an expression must sound like a new invitation, not yesterday’s calling card. It should serve as a stake in the ground or a flag waving in the breeze. Otherwise, it will be doomed to oblivion…another me-too in the mix.
Finally, a slogan should be open to inspired serendipity, which means you gotta think outside the ballot box. In other words, forget what the marketing mavens are saying and what the other candidates are doing. Candidates should listen to their gut and to the lingo of everyday Americans. Great insights and ideas can come from anywhere – the newspaper, an ad, a TV show, a random tweet, or even your Aunt Martha.
The English language is rich and nuanced and should be exploited for layers of meaning that run deep and resonate universally. The U.S. presidential slogan, despite its legacy of being calculated, self-conscious, and artificial, can speak volumes when it amplifies what’s on everyone’s mind and in a candidate’s heart.
Eric Swartz is a sloganeer and branding strategist living in Folsom, California. He is president and founder of Tagline Guru (www.taglineguru.com), which specializes in the creation and packaging of slogans and brand platforms for individuals and organizations of all stripes.
©2015 Eric Stephen Swartz. All rights reserved.