Image courtesy of FEMA

The power of messaging in politics

Consistent messaging is a vital component of any communications campaign, but in the overwhelming noise of a General Election this is never more true.

Confronted with hundreds of conflicting opinions and statistics, political parties must find a cut-through to voters that will resonate with how they want their country to be led, but equally how it will affect their own lives.

Many find hackneyed political slogans and soundbites tiresome and distracting, but they are, seemingly, an inescapable part of the western democratic process.

The fact of the matter is that repetition works. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said “it is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency” – in this case that tendency is towards the voter’s association between political figures or parties with promises or warnings.

Of course, not all slogans are dramatic. US President Warren G. Harding ‘s ‘back to normalcy’ slogan in 1921 captured the country’s desire for a simpler time after the First World War and a series of destabilising labour strikes, while J. Edgar Hoover’s simplified campaign of ‘a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage’ resonated with the fundamentals of the American dream.

What is different about political campaigning, opposed to more traditional PR-led campaigns, is that so much is spoken rather than read. The formation of soundbites, again reviled by so many, rather than rolling out statistics or complicated policy is the fact that they are easily repeated. How they sound is often more important than how they look on the page. Linguistic techniques have a far stronger impact than many of us understand, or are willing to admit. Modern humans have been around for some 200,000 years, but the written language has only been around for some 5,000 years – it’s understandable then that the spoken word can still have a huge impact on our collective consciousness.

Alliteration, then, can be a hugely impactful linguistic tool in a campaign. The Conservatives have embraced the phrasing ‘coalition of chaos’ to undermine the concept of Corbyn as Prime Minister, while May offers a ‘strong, stable leadership’. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the House rose, May used the word ‘strong’ 31 times in just under an hour.

Labour’s messaging is, by contrast, more nuanced. While employing the same technique to pitch the Conservatives as the ‘party of privilege’ the phrasing that strong leadership is about ‘standing up for the many not the few’ has an unusual double effect, drawing on two distinct (and disparate) historical figures.

While there is an echo of Churchill’s often quoted assertion that never before “was so much owed by so many to so few,” it is also not very far from the Karl Marx’s assertion that capitalism is the “exploitation of the many by the few.”

We can be certain that the public will be hearing these phrases at every opportune moment across the media.

However, while strong messaging relies on repetition for cut-through, it is always important to understand the value of context. Theresa May, could do well to consider this during interviews – notably last week when she was asked on a local radio station whether she could provide a definition of the word ‘mugwump’ (Boris Johnson’s word of the hour). Her response was “what I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership”.

Perhaps a lesson for us all is that, sometimes, you have to answer the question you’re asked, not the question you want.

The art of crafting a message that is simple to deliver and just as simple to understand is more complex than many would think. Repetition is the only way to guarantee impact, but it’s important to remember that sometimes, no matter how much you want to deliver your carefully crafted message, you need to say what you need to say, rather than what you want to say.

Image courtesy of FEMA

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