Slogans, straplines and collective forbearance

01 October 2020
Slogans, straplines and collective forbearance

When laws become so complicated that ministers – including the Prime Minister himself – can’t get a grip on the meaning of its own ‘Rule of Six’ slogan, how can they expect ordinary people to toe the line? This illustrates the dangers of dumbing down something complex into a single 'slogan', which required a patchwork of contradictory clarifications and u-turns to try and explain it clearly. Perhaps it should have been called 'The Rules of Six'.

The Prime Minister also has a habit of making clear ideas more opaque by using terms unintelligible to the average citizen, suggesting his target audience is classically educated humanities alumni of English public schools, or he just wants us all to know how very clever he is. While Trump speaks in baby talk, Boris goes highfalutin. Too often this creates a communication porridge that obscures the core message.

Bill Bernbach, co-founder of Doyle Dayne Bernbach said: “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.” It would seem Trump's drive to succeed and survive is behind his baby talk; and the need to be admired, to be loved, feeding Bojo's lexicon.

‘Hands, Face, Space’ works quite well because it reminds us of three important things and is certainly clearer than ‘Stay alert’, but problems multiply when slogans are overused or interpreted differently for different purposes. It’s a bit like creating a product naming architecture with lots of cool but ambiguous sub-brands, when simple descriptive names would be much more effective. Clarity is vital in life or death situations and when there’s a need to segment messaging by alert level and between national, regional and local audiences. How can the police impose hefty fines on people if the rules are unintelligible? Or if the Whitehall elite escapes sanction?

Lockdown 1.0 proved that we can act together with a common purpose to “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save lives”, but to help us avoid Lockdown 2.0 we all deserve clarity, encouragement and support; not simplistic slogans, obfuscation and contradiction.

If seeing the wood for the trees is the Government's problem, BrewDog has the solution. The cabinet should all be prescribed cans of their excellent Barnard Castle Eye Test…

Peter Matthews
Nucleus Founder & CEO
01 October 2020

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