Slogans More Than Mere Messages In Campaigns

A political slogan may seem a shallow reason for choosing a candidate or a party, but sometimes an election phrase focuses voters on an idea whose time has come. Sometimes it actually makes a difference.

In the United States, a few political slogans have captured the fervor of a moment, which in turn captured the imaginations of voters. In his first election, U.S. President Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes We Can,” was translated into an iconic red, white and blue poster with his image, which garnered international enthusiasm. He later won the Nobel Peace Prize—some say just for his positive agenda of hope and change.

In the late 1960s, anti-Vietnam War protests and the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ how many kids you kill today?” badly hurt the image of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who dropped out of the 1968 primary for re-election when his popularity plummeted.

In the 2006 Swedish parliament election, the Social Democrat’s slogan, “Alla ska med!,” which literally translates into “Everybody shall come with us!,” and means “Everyone shall be included!” was a popular slogan that became a song. Out of 21 political parties, the Socialist Democrats have been in the majority since the Great Depression. The slogan was an affirmation of the party’s popularity.

The website placed the Social Democrat’s slogan as number one in their list of political slogans, followed by at number 2, “All power to the Soviets,” a Bolshevik slogan just prior to the October Revolution; number 3, “no Power to the Imagination!,” a Situationist International (revolutionary group) slogan that was a play on the Soviet slogan, used in 1968 in Paris; and at number 4, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning “Work Sets You Free.” Mounted over the main gates of Nazi concentration camps from 1933-1945, it’s certainly a memorable, if not grotesque, slogan that has lasted in the collective memories of everyone who has ever seen it.

While it may seem most slogans are a modern advertising invention, during the formation of the United States, slogans were an important element of political influence. The original revolutionaries used the slogan, “No taxation without representation,” to stir up discord over British taxes. Also, Founding Father Patrick Henry’s declaration, “Give me liberty or give me death,” echoed in the minds of the original patriots. The 1775 Gadsden flag bore the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” with the image of a snake poised to strike on its yellow background.

During the French Revolution, the slogan “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) later became the country’s national motto. More recently, after the terrorist attack that killed 11 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the slogan “Je Suis Charlie,” meaning, “I am Charlie,” gave voice to global supporters of free speech.

Prior to a more sophisticated marketing approach, early American presidential slogans tended to be corny or literal. The first presidential campaign slogan, used in 1840 by William Henry Harrison, was “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” It’s also probably the first example of negative campaigning. Candidate Franklin Pierce used, “We Polked You in ’44; We Shall Pierce You in ’52.” He’s considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, and his reference to Polk, a fellow Democrat and former president, is one of the worst slogans, as well. In the case of Ulysses S. Grant, his two 1868 post-Civil War slogans clashed with each other. One was “Let Us Have Peace,” and the other was, “Vote As You Shot.” Apparently it worked, or maybe he confused people so much they voted for him anyway. In his next bid for office in 1872, he used the more prosaic, “Grant Us Another Term.”

In modern politics, slogans are more concise, but candidates also may have songs that serve as slogans, or anthems of campaigns. In President Clinton’s first run for the office in 1992, the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop”(Thinking About Tomorrow) was played during whistle stops on the election trail, giving an optimistic energy to his campaign staff. Candidate Clinton also coined some political phrases that became slogans, like “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” for his staff to remember. Later, Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy regarding gay members of the U.S. military eventually led to official acceptance.

Other interesting slogans have lost their original political meanings to enter the lexicon of the English language, such as the phrase, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch,” a line used in a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein in 1966, then adapted as the first official Libertarian Party slogan. “The Buck Stops Here,” a slogan used by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, has become a general saying used by leaders and CEOs. The term “Bread and Roses” originated in a speech given by New York labor organizer Rose Schneiderman, who said, “The worker must have bread; but she must have roses, too,” during a 1912 textile strike involving mostly immigrant women. It was adapted as a poem and a song, and became a general cultural reference that included women as part of the working world.

While funny slogans aren’t used much in political campaigns, back in 1964, President Johnson used one that was a response to Barry Goldwater, his opponent’s slogan. Goldwater’s slogan was, “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.” LBJ’s response? “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.” Not succinct, but effective. LBJ won by a landslide.