By Nick DAngelo
Have you ever wondered what the result of Googling Union College’s newest campaign slogan, “Think, Connect, Act,” would be? The answer is precautionary advice from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This was not my first guess, but I wasn’t too far off. Ironically, when I heard the three-word treatise earlier this year, the first thing that came to mind was the NYPD saying: “If you see something, say something.”
The slogan of random verbs, which aligns more closely with the objectives of a local grammar school than a prestigious college, is a far cry from an effective campaign slogan. It lacks the basic tenants of identity, fails to evoke emotion and does little to properly inspire.
In August, The Guardian profiled the 2013 Australian premiership election with an article titled, “What Makes a Good Political Slogan?” At their best, the article reports, campaign slogans are a “rallying-call to action.” At their worst, they’re no more “than a really awkward pick-up line.”
The same can be said for any advertising campaign, such as the one here on campus. Slogans must evoke a message and create an image. In less than a sentence, consultants must define the platform. Like the campaign theme of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Union’s slogan may be attempting to keep the message simple. Unfortunately, this simplicity borders on obscurity and blandness.
When I worked as the campaign manager for a state legislature campaign in 2012, the task of branding our candidate was a constant struggle. She was a virtual unknown running against a 20-year incumbent. Both were women, but of different generations. To further complicate matters, the district had an enormous Democrat advantage and we were being outspent nine to one with President Barack Obama heading the opposition ticket.
The strategy was obvious. In order to even come close to a respectable showing we would have to peel off voters that our opponent traditionally attracted. We focused on “swing-towns” and targeted our material to Democrat and independent working women with families.
Our slogan, “Put Kim to Work,” was hardly perfect, but it defined our candidate and clearly crafted our message. In November, our shoestring campaign performed just as well as some of our colleagues, who had spent upwards of $1 million.
Branding is one of the most fundamental rules of politics, summing up one’s platform into a clear, comprehensive message. Few can forget the painful Roger Mudd interview aired on CBS, which opened Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign. The simple question Mudd asked was: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy’s roundabout response was described by the Boston Globe as “incoherent and repetitive,” drawing serious doubts about both his motivation and platform, and foreshadowing his poor primary showing.
Perhaps one of the great masters of 20th century political branding is Richard Nixon. Although overshadowed by his shameful exit from office, Nixon’s campaigns, spanning from 1946 through 1972, were marked by mammoth emotions packed into parceled messages.
In his first campaign for Congress in 1946 against veteran Representative Jerry Voorhis, Nixon capitalized on charges of an unproductive Congress and the Communist ties of his opponent. This vast, lengthy message was consolidated into a simple theme, “Rabbits and Radicals,” the charge being that Voorhis’s only piece of legislation in Congress since 1942 had transferred jurisdiction of rabbits from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture.
As Paul Bullock notes in his 1973 journal published by the University of California Press, Nixon’s theme was “right out of the script for a Warner Brothers wartime movie … it was effective and exactly suited to the occasion.”
Of course, that wasn’t the last time Nixon would successfully brand himself. In his 1950 U.S. Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon pushed his red-baiting theme with the grossly inappropriate tagline: “She’s pink right down to her underwear.” It worked.
In 1972, his simple slogan “Nixon Now” was memorable and authoritative, reminding voters of the substantial domestic and international progress achieved since 1969. Nixon hit emotion, forced response and developed identity.
Good, solid campaigns require slogans that do just that, packing a punch into five words or less. “Think, Connect, Act” just does not cut it. It is a weak product; especially on the heels of the much more pronounced “You Are Union” campaign.
More importantly though, the flimsy verbs are hardly indicative of the ambitious and well-structured 2013 Strategic Plan developed by the Board of Trustees and carefully outlined by Acting President Therese McCarty in her convocation address.
With little bark and no bite, our new campaign slogan is still an important lesson. It demonstrates the great need for effective imagining and branding, and the importance of tapping into an emotional dialogue.
I’d challenge anyone to take The Guardian’s advice and use “Think, Connect Act,” as a pick-up line. Let me know how it goes.