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A high stakes game of political slogan poker

Over the past two years I have witnessed first hand three political campaigns which have ultimately ended in failure.

The Labour Party’s UK general election campaign of 2015 and both the Remain campaign in the European referendum and Hillary Clinton’s Presidential election campaign of this year have a number of things in common.

One thing that stands out for me is that in each case the slogan of the winning campaign was stronger. In each case they were big political events in which the electorate had major decisions to make with huge implications and there are lots of complicated factors at play.

I don’t think the world has quite dumbed-down to the point that if you get your slogan right then you’ll win automatically but having a simple clear coherent and powerful summary of a message is a key part of any campaign.

In each case the winning slogans have a mix of three things, they are consistently repeated, their simplicity makes the the core message difficult to argue with which puts opponents on the back foot, and they have an emotional draw that resonates. Like at the point in a game of poker when you show your hand, not all political slogans are created equal. It is clear that Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ was a Full House and Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ was a Flush.

The Conservative’s ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ was repeated with so much discipline that those following the campaigns got somewhat tired of it, normally a good sign that it is just starting to get through to the electorate.

It is difficult to argue with as who doesn’t think Government should have a plan for the economy? Labour’s ‘A Better Plan, A Better Future’ in some respects reinforced the Conservative message because it is an obvious reference to the Conservative slogan. It was not as integrated into the campaign and not repeated as often. The ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ isn’t particularly an emotional or evocative slogan yet it did ultimately resonate as the underlying message it was trying to convey was that it was better to stick with what you know than try something different.

The ‘Vote Leave, Take Back Control’ message in the European referendum was repeated often and is a great example of a slogan that sets the tone because the central concept of being in control is very hard to argue against. There are many robust and valid reasons why, actually, leaving the EU will mean that the UK loses control over many decisions that will still affect us but those arguments were never as simply or coherently made.

The fact that the campaign was called ‘Vote Leave’ which is a literal instruction rather than ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ shows that the leave campaign had clarity on its side from the outset.

Trump’s promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ certainly wins on the repetition front and the fact that baseball caps adorned with the slogan sat in glass cases on each side of stage on election night show how the slogan had become embedded and easily understood. Again, the simplicity makes it difficult to argue with, who would not want America to be great?

Clinton made the case that a Trump victory would, in fact, do the opposite of making America great and that she believed that America already was great. Expressing both of these views meant she was responding to Trump rather than setting the agenda. Her slogan of ‘Stronger Together’ also appears to be a response to the divisiveness of the Trump campaign and lacks the strength of the emotional pull of wanting to make America great again.

Using slogans and rhetoric can shape how people think and it therefore comes with a great responsibility. Both the Leave campaign in the referendum and now, it seems, the Trump campaign have legitimised racism and now both UK and US have seen a spike in hate crime which has a serious impact in people’s lives. So it’s not about a rush to the lowest common denominator and it is definitely not about lying, just being able to summarise your message.

Choosing a Government or deciding whether to leave the European Union are big decisions which people should not make just based on a slogan. However, in a digital age where news is increasingly delivered in snippets, if it is delivered at all, it is important to be able to encapsulate your message clearly and simply. It helps rally supporters and activists to your cause and helps a wider message cut through and both of these elements are vital in winning campaigns. Step forward the sloganistas!

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Matt is Treasurer of the CIPR North East Committee. He works for the two Labour Members of the European Parliament for the North East of England. He covers a full range of public relations activity including press, social media, stakeholder engagement and campaigns across the region and in Brussels. He is on the national executive of a group which promotes UK connections with Europe. He previously provided policy and communications support for the Leader of Newcastle City Council. He was involved in major issues such as setting the council's budget, the adoption of the long term planning framework for the city as well as significant internal change programmes.

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