On slogans

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The word slogan comes to us from Scottish Gaelic, and its original meaning was battle-cry. As such, its basic function is a declaration of group identity. The meaning of what is being yelled is less important than the fact that all of us over here are yelling it together. My intention here, however, is to unpack a few slogans as if the meaning of the slogan mattered.

I’m doing this because the slogan is one of the favourite rhetorical devices of our age, and as such it is used to persuade. By encapsulating what one desires the audience to believe in a slogan, one bypasses their critical faculties, because the content of a slogan is not usually examined. Instead it is swallowed whole.

My first example is a golden oldie that will be familiar to UK readers, originating with the Women’s Institute (although it has since evolved into its own charity):

Keep Britain tidy.

I chose this because it seems quite innocent on the face of it – nobody suspects the WI of dark ulterior motives – but it packs a surprising number of assumptions into three short words.

Firstly, it implies that Britain is already tidy, in the teeth of the evidence; or at least that tidiness is somehow Britain’s default mode of being. In its original context, the aim of this slogan was to get people to pick up litter, or at least not to drop it, so this is a little surprising.

Secondly, it assumes that tidiness is a good thing, in and of itself. I would argue that like many things it’s a good thing up to a certain point. My point here is that the slogan elides any discussion of how tidy we want Britain to be, or indeed what tidiness is or should be.

Thirdly – and this is something we find in many slogans – it is expressed as an imperative. The WI is a fine body, but it has absolutely no authority to command anyone to do anything. Advertisers love this. They often command us to buy whatever it is they’re selling, presumably because it works, even though they have even less authority than the WI, which at least has some claim to the moral high ground.

Apart from telling you to buy their product, advertisers are reluctant to make definitive statements even in their slogans. My favourite example of this, which again is an old one, is:

Ford gives you more.

Four words, but so many begged questions. What is it exactly that Ford gives you more of? One could perfectly well interpret this as “Ford gives you more trouble,” but presumably that wasn’t what they had in mind. And what is it than which Ford gives you more of this thing? I assume we are supposed to insert the name of Brand X here. Notice how they are careful not to say anything that could be objectively tested. Had they said, for example, “Ford gives you more miles between services than Peugeot,” we would be able to look at the facts and decide whether it be true or false. But that would cease to be a slogan and become a claim that invites verification.

What we have instead is a vacuous form of words which, if repeated endlessly, will leave you with a vague warm fuzzy feeling towards Ford, possibly to the point that you end up buying one of their cards. This sort of thing is very popular in car advertising, because there isn’t really all that much to choose between different makes of car. Hence the saying – I’d even call it a well-known fact -“You are what you drive,” a maxim that renders me non-existent but which many people appear to believe.

This characteristic vagueness on the part of the motor industry shows up in our next example:

You can in a Nissan.

What exactly is it you can do in a Nissan that you can’t do in some other make of car? The slogan prudently refrains from telling us, because the answer is: absolutely nothing. It does, however, suggest an ill-defined notion of empowerment. After all, the main thing you can do in a Nissan – as you can equally well do in a Fiat, an Audi or a Hyundai – is to drive from one place to another. The motor industry has spent decades trying to instil in us all the notion that this is the true meaning of freedom. And freedom is good, right? You’re probably lacking much other freedom in your life, what with all the time and effort you put into making enough money to pay for your car, amongst other things. Ivan Illich went so far as argue that when this time was taken into account, the actual speed of a car was around walking pace.

But the queen of all “empowering” slogans must surely be:

Because you’re worth it.

Devised back in 1973 on behalf of L’Oréal, a company which markets cosmetics to women, this is a beautiful instance of the personal being political. What, after all, is the point of cosmetics? Surely to make yourself more attractive to others. And why should you want to do that? This was a hot topic in 1973, when second wave feminism was in full swing. L’Oréal’s business proposition could easily be characterised as: “Hey, fish, would you like some help getting a bicycle?” Not an easy sell.

Previously, cosmetics advertising played quite straightforwardly on the insecurity of women, with headlines like “How to Bring Your Husband Straight Home at Night.” The genius of this slogan is that it continues to do so while appearing to do the opposite. Clearly there is an underlying sense of worthlessness which is assumed women have; by seeming to affirm the opposite, L’Oréal tacitly acknowledges its existence. You will feel better about yourself if you use our products, it suggests, and you deserve to feel better, therefore you should give us your money.

The unspoken corollary of this is that if you don’t buy our products it is because of a sense of self-hatred. Once this assertion is exposed to the daylight, of course, it becomes self-evidently ridiculous. But of course the art of slogan is conceal its underlying assumptions under a plausible surface.

Which brings me to my most recent – and controversial – example:

Black lives matter.

On the face of it, this is an entirely reasonable statement. It was coined in response to racially-motivated police brutality in the US, which as far as I can tell – and I live many thousands of miles from the US – is a real and appalling issue. Nevertheless , it can be read to imply things that are far from reasonable, as became apparent when an alternative version was proposed: “All lives matter.”

This would seem even more reasonable than the original, but was vehemently rejected by the BLM campaign. Which leads us with inexorable logic to the unpleasant conclusion that what is really meant by saying “Black lives matter” is that “Some lives don’t matter.”

Which lives? And why not? It seems to me that these questions need to be brought out into the open and honestly discussed.

At the back of this is a curious notion of virtue which has somehow evolved in the recesses of US academia. It has long been considered a truism that two wrongs don’t make a right, but we are now supposed to see wrongs as the only genuine source of right, and that the more oppressed a person is, the better and righter they are. I confess I struggle to understand how anyone thinks this could work, but there it is. Statistically, some not very nice people must surely have perished in the Holocaust. That doesn’t justify what was done to them, but it seems weird to pretend they must all have been angels.

When those who have been persecuted become persecutors in turn, they do not get a free pass. Consider the history of Christianity. For the first three centuries of its existence, its followers were subjected to various penalties, sometimes very severe. (How severe tended to fluctuate from one emperor to the next, but it could certainly include being thrown to the proverbial lions.) As soon as the Church was established as a branch of government, however, the burning of heretics could begin. Arguably, a similar pattern is visible in the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians.

People have an unlovely tendency to identify other groups of people as evil, on racial or religious or otherwise arbitrary grounds. Sometimes they maltreat or even attempt to exterminate these groups of people. It’s never justified, regardless of who does or it who is on the receiving end. It was bad when the USA passed the Chinese Exclusion Act because of racist feeling against the Chinese, and it is bad when the Chinese persecute the Uighurs on religious (and possibly racial) grounds. Again, nobody gets a free pass.

So the questions that a slogan begs can be deep and sometimes disturbing. Next time you encounter one – and you won’t have to search far – take a moment to unpack it, and see what’s underneath. You might be surprised, and disturbed, at what you find.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

One thought on “On slogans

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