Articulate Anger: Why Slogans Matter

2017 Washington Women’s March

2017 Washington Women’s March

I recently attended an exhibition reviewing the relationship between graphics and politics over the last ten years.

‘Hope to Nope’ (The Design Museum, London, until 12 August) considers various political and protest movements in the decade since Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 ‘Hope’ poster in support of Barack Obama’s Presidential bid. It displays banners, posters and memes; stunts, symbols and slogans; from Occupy and Deepwater Horizon, to Taksim Square and Charlie Hebdo; from Brexit and the 2016 US election, to women’s marches and Black Lives Matter… and more besides.

We live in turbulent times.

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You can’t help but be impressed by the lucidity, wit and invention of many of the pieces. You can see earnest Soviet posters subverted to include rainbow Pride colours; playful Jeremy Corbyn emojis; sinister Guy Fawkes masks; an ominous Trump fortune teller. In Hong Kong in 2014 protestors collectively adopted umbrellas, initially to shield themselves from the sun, and subsequently from tear gas. In Sao Paolo in 2015/16 marchers against tax rises and government corruption rallied to the theme of ‘I will not pay the duck.’ ‘Pay the duck’ means take the blame for something that is not your fault.

Often the material harnesses serious political messages to popular culture. After the Trump election victory, a Star Wars Rogue One poster became Rogue Won. And my former Agency BBH collaborated with the community action group Justice4Grenfell in a piece that referenced the movie ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’:  ‘71 Dead…And still no arrests…How come?’

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The exhibition also offers a compelling selection of funny, smart and eloquent political slogans. Consider the following from various anti-Trump rallies:

‘Love trumps hate.’
‘Make love not walls.’
‘This pussy grabs back.’
‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.’
‘A woman’s place is in the White House.’
‘Sexism is not sexy.’
And my personal favourite:
‘We shall overcomb.’

Of course, the language of protest has been familiar to us for many years. But in the digital age the impact of traditional approaches has been amplified by social media, memes and hashtags. Campaigns are easier than ever to initiate, endorse, adapt, share and spoof.

It’s therefore become more difficult than ever to cut through. Shepard Fairey expresses the challenge thus:

‘People have a lot of visual noise in their lives, so my work needs to be instant and memorable, easy to replicate and, even in an analogue world, potentially viral. Digital tools and social media mean that more people are empowered, but there are also white noise and mediocre graphics and memes bouncing around. I utilise the same principles that I always have when I transmit my work digitally: I want to be instantly memorable, evocative, and graphically and emotionally potent.’

As I wandered around the museum, I found myself wondering why the best rallying cries seem so compelling; why it is helpful to condense complex issues into catchy rhymes and phrases. Why do slogans matter?

Many years ago a girlfriend left me. I became depressed, inert, isolated. But more particularly I found I was completely inarticulate about how I felt. I couldn’t explain what had happened, why she’d gone, what I’d done to deserve this.

I took to going running round a local park. And as I ran I gradually pieced together in my head a narrative about what had gone wrong. I composed the speech I would deliver if I ever saw her again. And with every passing day and every exhausting circuit, the oration grew in clarity, brevity and articulacy.

Then, at last, my speech was perfect, crisp and concise. And I realised at that moment that I didn’t need to make it. I had moved on. I wouldn’t have to run round that muddy park again either.

‘The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression.’

Harold Pinter

Some experiences are so intense, emotional, complex and confusing that we feel only unfocused anger, foggy regret, dim despair. We become powerless, helpless, listless.

It’s only when we can distil our feelings into words and phrases – when we can articulate our anger - that we can begin to recover and become capable of action.

Like any well-crafted copy, the best political slogans define how we feel about an issue; compress it into something clear, precise and strong; find fellow feeling with others; and motivate us to get out and do something about it.

But there are limits to what graphics and slogans can achieve. After an hour at the exhibition, having walked through an aggregation of witty words, angry sentiments and cool design, I began to worry that mass protest is becoming almost effortless in the social era. It’s just a little too easy to like and retweet; to post and hashtag; to endorse, sign up and send on.

In 2017 the artists’ street project flyingleaps published the following statement on UK poster sites:

‘Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races.’

It’s a valid caveat: a political slogan is only as good as its power to prompt action. This is a sentiment that the Suffragettes had elegantly expressed over a century before:

‘Deeds not words.’

 

(This piece first appeared on BBH Labs on 23 April 2018.)

 

No. 179

 

Wind Tunnel Politics

Guardian/Dan Chung Dan Chung

Guardian/Dan Chung Dan Chung

It was going to be the most important Election in a generation.

It was going to break the mould of British Politics.

It should have been so exciting.

So why did it all seem so unfulfilling? Why did our eager anticipation of the first debate turn to a stifled yawn by the third? Why did our ardour for the new kid turn so quickly to complacency? Why did we shrug at the glossy manifestos, put the recycled thinking straight into the recycling bins?

This was the Sunblest Election. The Election when all the mighty forces of Marketing created three soft, medium sliced, plastic packaged loaves. Designed to please, guaranteed not to let you down. Perfectly pleasant on their own terms, but curiously unsatisfactory.

You see, all three candidates and campaigns had been put through the same Marketing Wind Tunnel.

Rolling focus groups, private polling, polished PR, whispering spin doctors, joy stick analysis…They had collectively eradicated the edges, the uncomfortable, the unpalatable.

They had created three glossy, smooth undifferentiated paradigms of  inoffensiveness.

Everyone knows that the debt needs tackling, that there are hard decisions to be made, jobs to be cut, taxes to be raised. But the focus groups said the electorate didn’t want to hear it and so the candidates didn’t want to tackle it. Efficiencies, my arse… No surprise perhaps, that an exclusive consideration of undecided voters produced indecisive outcomes; that researching marginal constituencies produced mainstream opinions; that endless focus groups produced unfocused group-think. It all seemed so timid, so spineless, so lacking in confidence.

It pains me as someone who works in the communications industry to see the techniques designed to sell soap powder applied so assiduously to such substantive matters. It pains me not just because politics ought to be a little more complicated. But also because the Marketing model that’s been applied is itself broken.

Advertising Agencies used to be in the business of finding and articulating difference. We used to help our Clients establish strong, compelling, differentiated truths. Don’t just ‘hold a mirror up to the consumer’, we said. Consumers don’t want their worldview mirrored and reinforced; they want  to be challenged, stimulated, inspired. But over the last ten years Marketing has fallen victim to formularisation and commoditisation. ’Best demonstrated practice’ has been distilled, codified, taught and tested. The researchers have taken over the asylum. The quest for difference has been replaced by the quest for inoffensiveness. Holding a mirror up to the consumer is no longer anathema; it is the recognised norm, standard practice. Have you ever wondered why the beer and car ads you used to love now look so similar, so sane, so sensible?  Well the Agencies and Marketeers that produce them have been looking for the same answers, in the same way, in the same places.

They’ve all been through the Marketing Wind Tunnel.

This was also supposed to be the first Digital Election. We had visions of grass roots participation, of new voter engagement, of a more visceral, real time debate. Indeed there was a vibrant online conversation, but it was a conversation fuelled by the big beast of telly. I guess the political establishment fell for McLuhan’s seductive aphorism: the medium is the message. They imagined that arming our MPs with Twitter accounts might send the youth of Britain into a swoon. But the truth is the medium is not the message. It communicates and amplifies the message; in some cases it prompts participation with the message. But it is not the message.

It’s obvious that Obama wasn’t successful simply because he designed a cunning digital strategy. It’s obvious that Obama hadn’t been through any Marketing Wind Tunnel. In our world we’d say he was a great product, a great brand, with a real difference, with something worth saying…

I hope, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that all Politicians, winners and losers, are humbled by this Election. I hope there is a rebellion against the insipid, spineless, formularised Wind Tunnel Politics that have deprived us of the vital engagement the electorate craves and the issues demand. They may not want to talk to the likes of us again. But if our political masters want some communication advice for next time, let’s give it to them. Get yourself a great product, with a strong sense of difference. Be confident in who you are and what you stand for. And then sing it from the rooftops (and the blogs and the Twitter feeds). You know what. People may not mind that you’re saying something different or challenging or hard to stomach. They’ll respect you for it. They may well want to talk to you about it.

And if you say it well and persuasively, they might even vote for you.

First published BBH Labs: 12/05/10

No. 4