The Real World

Slogans: What We Say and What We Mean

(1600 words, 5-6 minutes to read. Sorry in advance for the many, many quotation marks.)

Growing up, my dad used to play this game where he’d dissect a word and interpret each piece literally. “Do you want to know where the word ‘politics’ comes from?” he’d say. “Well ‘poly’ means ‘many’, and ‘ticks’ are blood-sucking creatures. So, ‘politics’ means ‘many blood-sucking creatures’!” Which is of course not the historical origin of the word but I get what he’s trying to say. (In one way or another I think my affinity for wordplay originates with my dad.)

These kinds of games are fun and are perfect fodder for coming up with moderately-funny puns, but if you take it too seriously you run the risk of driving yourself crazy. A simplified model of those insanely paranoid people you see in movies is that they’re doing this kind of analysis and taking it 100% literally: “Wait a minute, ‘Germany’ means ‘lots of germs’… could it be that they are they planning to unleash bioterrorism on the world? And in French they call it ‘Allemagne’, which is like ‘all are man’, which is to say, they are targeting women! I have to tell the President!!” Language games can drive a person crazy.

So let’s talk about slogans.

When I think of slogans I tend to think of consumer products: McDonald’s says “I’m Lovin’ It”; Sprite says “Obey Your Thirst”; Nike says “Just Do It”. If you wanted to drive yourself crazy, you’d spend a lot of time parsing these statements for the “real” meaning: I’m lovin’ what!? Just do what!? What do they really meeeeeean?? This, until you realize they don’t “really mean” anything; McDonald’s is just saying things that make you feel good about McDonald’s. Advertising is, at its core, a kind of Dark Art where whatever works, works. The proof of a good slogan is that you buy more burgers.

How did McDonald’s decide on “I’m Lovin’ It”? I have no insider information here, but I have to imagine they entertained many proposals and tested them on focus groups; the ones that made people buy more burgers or rate the company more positively are the ones they moved forward with. These decisions are informed by surveys and on-the-ground testing, but at the end of the day it’s still a top-down process; some executive or board makes a final decision. This means if some horrific slogan like “I’m Lovin’ Cow-Murder” wins in the focus groups, the board can veto that and go with something less morbid.

The best political sloganeers also follow this approach of top-down decision-making informed by bottom-up knowledge. Hillary’s “I’m With Her” slogan took off after it won a bumper sticker contest hosted by her campaign’s email team; they accepted many suggestions, decided on the three best options, and let the public vote on their favorites. On the other side, Trump seems like a one-man slogan machine, and he has said many times that he came up personally with “Make America Great Again”; say what you will about Trump, but he knows a thing or two about saying what people want to hear. He does a kind of market testing of his own, seeing what works during his rallies, and right now he’s reportedly trying out a bunch of replacements for “Keep America Great” as his 2020 campaign slogan.

The top-down aspect of this is absolutely crucial for avoiding various adaptive valleys in the marketing landscape. Take it away, and you run the risk of ending up with a slogan like “I’m Lovin’ Cow-Murder” or, in two real-life examples, a boat named “Boaty McBoatface” or a Mountain Dew beverage named “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.” Both names were, by the way, later rejected by top-down forces, and rightly so.

Boaty McBoatface makes significant climate change discovery on ...
They ended up using the name for a small, unmanned research submarine.
Image Credit is here.

To be clear, the bottom-up information is super necessary too. In what I have to imagine was a non-market-tested situation, Nivea launched a “White is Purity” ad campaign that was immediately identified as racially insensitive and taken down. I’m confident that if they put that ad out to 100 people in a test group, they’d very quickly see the problem with the slogan; however, the marketing team at Nivea apparently missed the Boaty McBoatface on this one.

(I’m using this example as a case of lazy top-down decision making with a lack of bottom-up market testing, rather than actual racism, basically because of my weak priors for people dog-whistling in stupid, public ways. But who knows, maybe you want to cancel Nivea now that you know their dark past.)

So we learn two lessons here. Firstly we see that in an ideal case, top-down forces need to be guided by the bottom-up information from the public, in order to make a slogan that sticks, yet is also not horrific, misleading, or offensive. And secondly, at the end of the day, whatever slogan emerges from the mire is not an attempt to convey precise information about the product; to pick it apart is to misunderstand the forces that bring it into being. In the Nivea case, all they were trying to say was “Hey we make deodorant” or “Remember us when you go shopping” or even “Please love me.” Slogans, at their best, are blunt but effective weapons in the war for your attention.

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All of this was prelude to say something about (…sigh…) current events.

I wrote last week about the slogan “Abolish the Police” and why, taken in a literal sense, I don’t agree with it. I wrote this up because I’m aware of a lot of disagreement over what this phrase is supposed to mean when chanted by thousands of people at a protest. Do they really mean “Eliminate police forces and the world will improve”? Some do seem to mean that. But others assure me that it’s really just a catchy way of bringing attention to the problem, and that really all The Movement wants to do is make police better by enacting important reforms to put an end to brutality and racism.

Part of me is a little worried about slogans that don’t mean what their constituent words mean.

Now we have some context to analyze a slogan like this beyond the literal. When we ask “What does this slogan really mean?” we neglect the fact that slogans are by their nature blunt instruments whose goal is positive affect, not precise conveyance of information. When we parrot any slogan in this space, we’re best interpreted as just waving our little flags and saying “boo cops” rather than making a concrete policy proposal. The policy proposals happen later, outside of the protests and off of Twitter, in the offices of those people who hold institutional power.

At least as important is the fact that a movement this large is a sort of headless creature; there’s no central coordinating body that gives top-down approval or rejection of what its participants are doing. How could there be? There have been literally more than 1500 protests and demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd in the US alone (there have been others around the globe), and they’ve sprung up mostly organically by local organizers. Did you think Black Lives Matter is the organization behind it all? I don’t think so: they are a mostly decentralized movement with 16 chapters across the US and Canada. There’s no mastermind to be found here, just a lot of people doing stuff.

So does The Movement support violence? Does The Movement support looting? Does The Movement support the full-scale ending of police across the country? The answer to all of these is both yes and no, because there is no The Movement; it’s just people with mostly similar general points of view (“End Racism”) but very different specific policy ideas. For every person you find, in the streets or on Twitter, claiming to speak for The Movement, you can find an equal and opposite proposal from someone else with just as much actual power over the process (which is to say, not much).

The unguided emergence of a slogan from a many-thousands-of-disconnected-protests “group” seems like an excellent example of memetic evolution, in a sense very closely resembling biological natural selection. Genes don’t get selected for because they’re the “best” ones in any recognizable moral sense, but because they’re fittest, meaning fittest to be passed on; evolution is blind to many of the things we care about. In the same way, “Abolish the Police” gets selected from the mire of random slogan mutations not because it’s a clear explanation of any majority view, but because it’s pithy and extreme and pointed vaguely in the direction of “boo cops.”

So how did we end up with a slogan like “Abolish the Police”? It was all bottom-up, with lots of people saying lots of stuff and something caught on. I personally don’t think this is a good slogan, but there was no top-down Slogan Czar to oversee the process; we may be stuck with the proverbial Boaty McBoatface on this one. So these days when I hear “Abolish the Police”, I’m mostly translating it as “boo cops” and going on about my day.

I do still think there’s one potentially terrible outcome of these kinds of slogans, and that’s the fact that people supporting the movement might interpret the slogan as the cause. If you start out knowing you will support whatever The Movement supports, and you keep hearing your comrades saying “Abolish the Police”, you might find yourself supporting the actual abolition of the police (independently of the arguments for or against). Such people are mistaking the rallying flag for the movement, but if they are in positions of power they could do actual harm. The cure for this is, well, to not accept slogans as God-Given Truths before you consider the evidence and arguments on both sides.

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