Marketing guru Steve Cone offers his choice for the best and worst political slogans of all time and explains how a slogan can make or break a campaign
Quick. What was John Kerry's Presidential ad slogan in 2004? How about Ronald Reagan's in 1984? Barack Obama's in 2008? Mitt Romney's?
A political junkie might recall that Reagan's 1984 slogan was "It's Morning in America," because it was delivered in some very memorable ads. But veteran marketing executive and Republican strategist and fundraiser Steve Cone, who has a book about memorable ad slogans and tag lines, says anyone who remembers Kerry's "Let America be America Again," is either a serial C-Span watcher or a former Kerry campaign staffer.
2008 Candidates: No Clear Edge
As the U.S. draws closer to the general election cycle following Super Tuesday, Cone says candidates hoping for the White House might do well to remember that the best, most memorable ad slogans usually win. And he says, based on his review of Presidential election history and the candidates' current slogans in his book, "No one still in the race after Super Tuesday has given themselves an edge when it comes to a memorable slogan."
The most repeated word of the campaign is "change," owing to Senator Barack Obama's adoption of the word in stump speeches and his ad slogan. The whole slogan is "Change We Can Believe In." The trouble is, says Cone, "change" is such a generic word that while those following the campaigns could associate that word with Obama, "I doubt many could tell you what the actual line is…and that's not good when you are trying to separate yourself from a field of candidates."
It's so generic, says Cone, that Senator Hillary Clinton was able to take it for her own, adopting, "The Strength and Experience to Bring Real Change" after Obama had already staked out "change." Senator John McCain then used the Democrats "change" rhetoric as a cudgel against his rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney because of Romney's "changed" positions over the years on such issues as abortion and gay marriage.
Strategists Who Aren't Writers
Ad slogans have been wrongly trivialized in the modern era, says Cone, who studied slogans going well back into the 19th century for his forthcoming book,Powerlines: Words That Sell Brands, Grip Fans, and Sometimes Change History (Bloomberg Press). In almost every case, the candidate with the best written slogan in the election went onto the White House.
Dwight Eisenhower had "I Like Ike," vs. "The Experienced Candidate" for Adlai Stevenson.
Lyndon Johnson had "All the Way with LBJ," while Barry Goldwater went with, "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right."
Franklin Roosevelt had "Happy Days Are Here Again," while Al Smith campaigned on the leaden, "Honest. Able. Fearless."
One of the problems in modern politics, says Cone, chief marketing officer of marketing firm Epsilon, is that campaign political strategists often write the line rather than creative people with a flair for writing. Reagan's ad strategy team, by contrast, included Hal Riney and Phil Dusenberry from BBDO Worldwide (OMC), two of the top creative talents in Madison Avenue history. Cone has worked for corporate clients such as Citigroup (C), Fidelity, and Apple (AAPL), as well as for the Republican National Committee and political candidates such as former Senator Birch Bayh and John Connally, the former Texas governor and Presidential candidate.
Republican Hits and Misses
In 1980, Reagan's official slogan was "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" That was a question Reagan constantly reinforced in his stump speech and in debates, and it was repeated in campaign literature and even on stickers. "Every piece of communication strategy in both 1980 and '84 stemmed from the slogan that the team developed," says Cone. Walter Mondale's slogan was "America Needs a Change."
Republican front-runner McCain is not currently using a slogan, though he still occasionally refers to the one that had been his official slogan, "Straight Talk Express." Says Cone: "McCain should go back to it and re-emphasize it everywhere, because he owns it." Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's slogan is "Faith. Family. Freedom." Says Cone, "It's a good line that fits his Christian positioning, but I'm not sure where the freedom comes from, because we are all free here." Mitt Romney's slogan is "True Strength for America's Future." That, quips Cone, is "a ponderous line of copy."
Going back to the 19th century, some candidates used slogans to go negative on their opponents. In 1884, a razor-thin election between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine, Cleveland's team adopted, "Blaine. Blaine. James G. Blaine, the Continental liar from the State of Maine." Blaine's team responded with "Ma. Ma. Where's My Pa," a dig at reports that Cleveland had sired a child with a woman before he was married. Both lines became de facto slogans for each campaign, with neither having a positive slogan for themselves.
Once the candidates from the two major parties are decided for the 2008 general election, there is opportunity to retool ad strategies and slogans. Here, Cone offers his choices for the 10 best slogans and the 10 worst from his forthcoming book as inspiration for the campaigns.
Top 10 Presidential Campaign Slogans
1. It's Morning Again in America, Ronald Reagan, 1984. "Hard to argue with the greatest landslide in modern times. Every talking point by Reagan during this campaign reinforced this theme. Plus it perfectly captured Reagan's personality, which is always powerful for a slogan to do—though rarely done."
2. Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932. "Another of the rare examples of a slogan reinforcing the candidate's personality. And, another landslide election. Boy, did Americans want happier days in 1932. Hoover, the incumbent, had no slogan and had no chance."
3. 54-40 or Fight, James Polk, 1844. "Referring to a major land dispute with Great Britain, Polk rode this issue to the White House, narrowly defeating a much better known candidate, Henry Clay." Clay's slogan tops the 10-worst list.
4. He Kept Us Out of War, Woodrow Wilson, 1916. "Running for a second term Wilson beat back a stiff challenge by the Republican Charles Hughes. Wilson barely left the White House, claiming world events demanded he stayed focused preventing the U.S. from getting dragged into World War I. This slogan probably made the difference between victory and defeat for Wilson. Interesting that just a month after taking the oath of office Wilson ignored his campaign pledge and we declared war on Germany."
5. Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?, Reagan, 1980. "The Carter era brought dismal economic times. The joke at the time was the prime rate was higher than Carter's approval rating. What started off as a quip in a debate with Carter became Reagan's wordy but totally effective slogan."
6. Don't Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream, Abraham Lincoln, 1864. "Lincoln was by no means a shoo-in for a second term. By 1864, many in the North were fed up with the loss of life and seemingly no end in sight to the conclusion of the Civil War. This slogan made the point that this was not the time to change leaders. Toward the last few months leading up the election Generals Grant and Sherman started winning decisive victories and the North agreed to not 'swap horses.' Notable that this was the first general election held by any country during a major conflict."
7. Cox and Cocktails, Warren Harding, 1920. "Warren Harding attacked his challenger James Cox for being in favor of lifting Prohibition—which had been enacted the year before. Cox and many others thought that Prohibition mainly served criminal interests and sparked a huge 'bootlegging' business. Cox had no slogan to reply with. Harding won handily. No matter that in his personal life Harding was a huge fan of alcohol and consumed great quantities which led to his death in office three years later."
8. Keep Cool with Coolidge, Calvin Coolidge, 1924. "Calvin 'Silent Cal' Coolidge was one of the most popular Presidents of all time. He was very low-key and in every way appeared and acted like a normal person as opposed to a calculating politician. His appeal was complete honesty, a total lack of ego, and a large dose of common sense in managing the federal government. He trounced his opponent, John W. Davis."
9. I Like Ike, Dwight Eisenhower, 1952. "When your nickname has been in the press for five years practically every day during World War II, [it] seems logical and effective to use it as your slogan. Ike did and sailed to victory, this time off the battlefield against Adlai Stevenson."
10. Ross for Boss, Ross Perot, 1992. "A line with some attitude and a clear message about how Ross Perot would run things if elected. He was ahead of Bush Senior and Bill Clinton in the polls until he dropped out of the race for several months with no explanation. Despite the disappearing act, which did not sit well with potential supporters, he still garnered 20 million votes and probably was the primary reason Clinton won."
Bottom 10 Presidential Campaign Slogans
1. Who Is James Polk? Henry Clay, 1844. "Henry Clay discovered a great way to give notoriety to an obscure opponent: Put the opponent's name front and center in your own campaign. Very effective—for the other guy. And the other guy, James Polk, won."
2. For President of the People, Zachary Taylor, 1848. "Some slogans are so mundane it's hard to imagine why the candidate even bothered. Taylor won in a three-way race that nobody remembers or cares about. Small wonder."
3. The Experienced Candidate, Adlai Stevenson, 1952. "He was kidding, right? Compared to opponent Eisenhower who had just managed the defeat of Nazi Germany, Stevenson's claim of more experience was downright laughable. Even Stevenson didn't believe it."
4. America Needs a Change, Walter Mondale, 1984. "Nope. America didn't. Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and at that by only 4,000 votes. Reagan came that close to the biggest electoral trouncing of all time."
5. In Your Heart You Know He's Right, Barry Goldwater, 1964. "About what exactly? Goldwater was extreme to the right wing and proud of it. What he did exceptionally well was frighten millions of Americans that if elected he would start World War III and go nuclear. The Johnson camp saw an opportunity to turn this slogan against Goldwater and did with their retort: 'In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts.' The election outcome was never in doubt. Landslide for Johnson."
6. For the Future, Richard Nixon, 1960. "Let's see. Are we all for the future? The only weaker slogan he might have used would have been 'For the Past.' Forgettable slogans are harbingers of close elections. No one focused on Kennedy's either: 'A Time for Greatness.' Kennedy barely won."
7. The Better Man for a Better America, Bob Dole, 1996. "Dole lost handily to Clinton in 1996. Hey Bob, Americans don't want the better man for President, they want the right man. And, anyone using America in a slogan, beware. The slogan better be drop-dead fantastic or at least a brand new thought or no one will pay attention."
8. Prosperity and Progress, Al Gore, 2000. "Is this the best the Gore camp could come up with? No wonder the election wound up in the Supreme Court."
9. Yes, America Can!, George W. Bush, 2004. "Here we go again with America. I am pretty sure he's not referring to the American Can Company, but you never know. Can what? Can grow? Can go it alone and build 10-foot fences to keep the Canadians and Mexicans out? This slogan makes no sense."
10. Let America Be America Again, John Kerry, 2004. "Seriously, I can't make this stuff up. Three Americas appear in the last two candidates' slogans. I suppose it hardly matters since no American in America or outside America has the slightest idea these last two slogans existed about…America."