While the effect of a bad slogan can be devastating, the value of a good one is often overstated.
In the 1980s, when the primary target audience for desktop computers — conformist business executives — saw them as threatening and subversive, Apple’s slogan, “A computer for the rest of us,” scared them right into the arms of arch-competitor IBM.
But sometimes a slogan propels a product to victory because it can, as Samuel Johnson said about the knowledge that you’ll be hanged in two weeks, “concentrate the mind wonderfully.”
That’s what “Hope and Change” did for the Obama campaign in 2008.
It offered the prospect of relief to a population spooked by an economy that, in comparison to today’s 274-point loss on the Dow and job creation at little more than one-third of the population-growth minimum, was peachy keen. And it offered a fresh approach to people fatigued by eight years of George W. Bush.
And it did all that in just three words.
So it’s surprising that just four years later, the Obama campaign, having tried and discarded five campaign slogans and having doubts about the sixth, is now working on its seventh.
But maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
Seventh time’s the charm?
Harsh criticism is coming not just from right-wing extremist nuts, but from definitely left-of-center commentators as well.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama broke out Winning the Future, the first of what TheWeek.com calls “catch phrases Obama auditioned, then pulled offstage.” For an administration plagued with a reputation of amateurishness, WTF doesn’t make the best of acronyms.
Eight months later, in October, “We can’t wait” was supposed to galvanize voters into outrage over Congress’ refusal to pass still more stimulus spending. Slogan #2 was also a non-starter because, as Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine, “Most Americans have a gut-level belief that an economic crisis means the government should reduce its deficits, not increase them.” A second problem was that Latinos — a significant voting bloc — were already tired of waiting for immigration reform, according to focus group research.
Fast-forward to January of this year, and now Slogan #3 is “An America Built to Last.” America may last, but the slogan didn’t. Lee Siegel, writing at The Daily Beast, dismissed it as “weaselish.”
“[I]t is a campaign slogan serving an expedient purpose,” he wrote. The expedient purpose was to reach out to yet another defined voting bloc. “In a speech clearly meant to address the swing voters in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, ‘built to last’ seemed intended to make them think of their own trade and therefore their own interests.”
The very next month, as “An America Built to Last” was failing to last, Team Obama launched Slogan #4: “Greater Together,” targeted to “rekindle [a] connection with young voters,” a bloc that voted Obama by a two-to-one margin in 2008, Nsenga Burton at TheRoot.com explained. They also used it to reach out to African-Americans, who voted for Obama almost monolithically.
“The ‘greater together’ slogan…is a candidate for a poll-tested bumper-sticker slogan that is expected to be announced in the next few months,” Neil Munro reported on February 23, but “Obama’s bumper-sticker slogan is still absent, leaving his car-driving supporters without a solidarity-building theme.”
Apparently too impatient to wait for focus group results, Obama tested Slogan #5 — “We Don’t Quit” — the very same month, in a California fund-raising speech. This slogan, Hot Air snarked, “lends itself immediately to a follow-up line of, ‘… so I guess we’ll have to fire you.’”
Then, a little over a month ago, at the end of April, the Obama campaign released “a seven-minute web video that brands his campaign with a new slogan: ‘Forward.'” While intended to brand Mitt Romney as a reactionary by implication, Slogan #6 was accused of untintentially branding Obama as a plagiarist, as the Huffington Post reported howls of complaint from MSNBC about stealing their two-year-old campaign line, “Lean Forward.”
And now there’s talk that Team Obama is feverishly working on Slogan #7.
But the failure of six count ’em six slogans to find traction could portend more than just uncreative copywriting.
Too many advertisers — some on a national level, more as you get down to midsize local markets like Richmond — believe that all they need to get their product selling like hotcakes is some kind of perfect slogan which, through the sheer power of its wording, will act like a magic sales-boosting formula.
It doesn’t work that way.
Effective slogans don’t excist in a vacuum. They’re based on some key feature, attribute or benefit of the product. When those exist, and when you can define them, it’s easy to dash off page after page of good lines, one or two of which in the end will prove to be real winners in the marketplace.
But when you can’t define what you’re selling, or when you can’t figure out the right strategy, your slogan will make things worse, not better. And according to John Podhoretz in the New York Post, Obama 2012 has problems on both counts.
The incumbent’s using a challenger strategy
While a challenger can afford to campaign against the incumbent, the reverse doesn’t work.
“The presidents who don’t win a second term seem to base their campaigns on an argument against the other guy,” Podhoretz notes, citing “Carter 1980: ‘Reagan is a madman.’ Bush 1992: ‘Clinton is personally unworthy of this high office.’”
You need to make the case for why the nation should rehire you, and even when it’s an uphill battle, it’s still doable. John Lindsay was a disastrously inept New York mayor, but he won reelection in 1969 by admitting “mistakes were made” and by excusing his incompetence with a campaign slogan that said being New York’s mayor was “The Second Toughest Job In America.”
There’s no there there
The Obama campaign has yet to come up with a clear, simple statement of why he deserves to keep the first toughest job in America.
“Every president who wins re-election has such an argument,” Podhoretz explains. “Reagan 1984: ‘I’ve brought America back.’ Clinton 1996: ‘I’ve turned the economy around while shrinking the deficit.’ Bush 2004: ‘I’m keeping America safe.’”
Romney’s already making the same kind of argument. His latest commercial says that from day one he’ll work to “put America back on track” in a number of specific ways. It ends with the slogan, “Believe in America,” which, by implication, his opponent doesn’t.
Meanwhile, aside from promising to tweak the heathcare legislation that surveys show more than two-thirds of Americans hate, Obama hasn’t said anything about what he’s do starting January 2013 (except maybe be “more flexible” with Vladimir Putin). Instead, his campaign’s been sniping at a “war on women” and “vampire capitalism.”
Last night on CNN, a political commentator gave the Obama campaign some good advice on how to proceed:
“[T]he real issue ought to be what has Governor Romney advocated in the campaign that he will do as president.” he said. “What has President Obama done and what does he propose to do? How do these things stack up against each other, that’s the most relevant thing.”
The commentator was Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about winning reelection.