In the US we have Trump trumpeting ‘Make America Great Again’. In the last UK election, from one side we had ‘Strong and Stable’, from the other side ‘For the Many Not the Few’. From Australia, how about ‘Continuity and Change’.
Political slogans, conceived for soundbites and the sides of campaign buses. Grand-sounding phrases but ultimately meaningless. And now at last a former politician is calling them for what they are. “Puerile,” says former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major.
In a speech calling for more honesty in government, Sir John suggests the language of politics is being corrupted by the tendency of politicians to fall back on pre-prepared and meaningless soundbites.
Sir John says the slogan ‘take back control’, used by people campaigning to take Britain out of the European Union, was a “memorable example of pitch-perfect absurdity”.
Such slogans, he argues, “convey nothing, explain nothing and are worth nothing”.
He went on: “As voters hear our elected representatives uttering puerile slogans instead of explaining policy, it is no wonder if respect for them melts away. Slogans and sound bites are a deceit. Electors deserve the truth in plain English, not in fairy tales.”
Seventy years ago George Orwell wrote an essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it he noted that politicians, journalists and academics were increasingly using meaningless words and euphemisms to make “lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and… give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Seventy years on, that wind is reaching gale force.
So why am I, a media skills coach who advises people on soundbites, drawing attention to Sir John’s critique?
The answer is simple. If we respect our audience, and we believe in our message, we don’t need empty slogans. Vacuous phrases like ‘strong and stable’ or ‘continuity and change’ show a total disregard for the intelligence of the audience.
Soundbites may not be the place for an extended examination of issues and policies. But they can be used very effectively to initiate debates on issues and policies.
As long as we allow politicians to get away with slogans instead of substance, we are complicit in the debasing of the democratic process.
Next time a politician knocks on your door, point to the empty slogan on the front of the flyer they are sticking in your hand and ask “What exactly do you mean by that? How will that work? What will it cost?”
Record the exchange on your phone. Post it on social media. Let others enjoy the politician coming up with their variation on the infamous “an election is no time to discuss serious issues”.
Right now many people are demonstrating their disdain for sloganeering politicians by refusing to vote. And that just means the bad guys win again.
Neil Everton has distilled a lifetime’s experience with some of the world’s top news organizations into his Media Mastery training aids for anyone worried about talking to reporters. The video, books, e-books and workbooks are available in the Podium Coaching online store.