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The Sloganators: mad men in tee shirts

July 1, 2020

Slogans are part of life, are they not? Even among those whose brains are fading in old age, I’ll bet that most of us will remember the advertising slogans of our youth.

Go to work on an egg.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach.

Our reaction to such phrases might be neutral. Or they might be nostalgic. But rarely negative.

Political slogans are different. In me, they produce an instant reaction, rarely positive. I reject them because they’re like a virus to which I’ve built up ferocious antibodies. Even those that reflect political beliefs with which I have some sympathy sometimes produce an adverse reaction. Because they’re so simple, and life is so complex.

Whatever their purpose, slogans are tools of manipulation. Like most of us, I don’t like being manipulated. But first, I have to know that I’m being manipulated. Or influenced, sold to, call it what you will.

A good way to find out is to read Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Just about every trick in the influencing book is there.

When slogans become more important than substance, that’s when things start getting dangerous. In the hands of the unscrupulous, they can become gateways to dark places. Hypnotic triggers that generate an instant, unthinking response.

In my case, the response is usually deep cynicism, which I guess is better than murderous rage. When Matt Hancock starts trotting out the COVID mantras – Protect the NHS, Save Lives and all that jazz, my immediate thought is that he’s about to tell a lie, or announce some unreachable target.

But occasionally the red mist descends. When Priti Patel tweets triumphantly about Parliament passing a law ending freedom of movement, and manages to include just about every Brexit-shaped slogan pumped out over the past four years, my response is rage, because reading those empty slogans brings back my original fury at the massive con-trick that’s been played on us. Rationality goes out of the window, and I turn to unworthy thoughts. I look at the picture of Patel’s wintry smile and austere attire, and I think of Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Do I accept that there need to be some controls over who comes to live and work in my country? Of course. But do I believe that Priti Patel and her colleagues are capable of coming up with a system that is fair, in the national interest and doesn’t just pander to the prejudices of those who don’t like the prosperous, multi-ethnic society that is reflected in organisations like our revered National Health Service? Absolutely not.

A few weeks ago I suggested that the current British government is a machine best equipped to win elections, not to govern the country. That’s still the case in my view. But more than ever there are times when I feel that we’re governed not so much by an election machine but by a niche advertising agency run by men in tee shirts for whom messages are paramount, substance a mere technicality.

In other words, we’re being told to admire the car, not to look under the hood and definitely not to give it a test drive.

“Build, build, build” says Boris Johnson. The purpose? To kick-start the economy, provide jobs. Forty hospitals, rail track everywhere, new schools, blah, blah, blah. Much more exciting than the dreary reality that our infrastructure is crumbling, and that first we need to fix, mend and repair.

The problem for the sloganators is that the more they let us down, the more we lose our rationality. Instead of buying into some, and rejecting others, we regard every three-word gem they produce as a pile of stinking ordure. In marketing terms, that’s strong evidence of a damaged brand.

Which is how I feel about Boris Johnson and his gang. His is not the only brand that’s busted. Needless to say, I will never go near a Trump hotel or golf course. For the same reason I’m unlikely to buy a Tesla, I will never read the Daily Mail or watch Fox News except to ridicule them, and if you offer me Heinz salad cream I will accuse you of trying to poison me.

That’s the weakness of governing by slogans. If you believe the people delivering the message, fine. If you don’t, whatever they say, you’ll head for the beaches, hug each other in the parks and keep other people cool with your sweat at illegal raves.

Which is more or less where we are today, along with the people of Texas, Florida, California and other parts of the world where coming together is a voluntary act rather than an economic necessity.

Alas poor Boris. Will history say of him that he was sunk by his slogans, and strangled by his straplines?

From → Books, Business, Media, Politics, UK

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