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Sloganeering Needs to be Left to Professionals

Sometimes marketing just needs to be left to the cool kids.

Too many advertising campaigns and marketing slogans sound like they were dreamed up by a committee of people who only rhyme words by accident, and then say "Hey, I was a poet and didn't know it!" The kind of committee a mayor would appoint from a bunch of people standing around the office.

A committee that spent their first three weeks creating a mission statement that included the phrases "dynamic synergy" and "core values."

I recently spotted a billboard that said "Better left unread than dead," which lacked the power punch of "Don't tempt fate. That text can wait." But I've seen it around a lot, so I figured it must be effective.

Turns out "Better left unread than dead" was made by an Anaheim, Calif. student who entered a contest to help curb texting and driving, and it's been placed on 1,000 billboards around the country. Still, it was approved by a committee, so my initial observation stands.

It's also very different from the writer's creed, "Better dead than unread," which would make an awesome tattoo.

What is it about catchy rhymes that make them widely used? We've all heard military rhymes, like "Kick the tires, light the fires," or sports slogans like "Teamwork makes the dream work."

They actually serve a function. Rhymes help us remember things more easily. For decades, researchers have studied how students learn better if they can turn their lessons into a song, rather than just rote memorization. There's something about the rhythm and poetry of the rhymes that makes them easier to remember.
This is why the anti drinking-and-driving slogan, "Stay alive. Don't drink and drive," was effective. And why the slogan, "Click it or ticket" sticks in our mind. With four simple words, we know what will happen if the police catch us without our seat belts fastened.

Of course, the rhyme makes the phrase powerful, but if the words are poorly chosen, the slogan will fail. Hard.

"Textin' and drivin' equals cryin' and dyin'" said one rather egregious slogan I found. Either that, or it was a terribly awkward country song.

Also, the power of the slogan doesn't always carry over into other languages.

In German, "Click it or ticket" becomes "Klicken der Sicherheitsgurt, oder bekommen einer Strafzettel," and it loses something.

Clearly, rhyming and word choice are both important to message retention. That's why we get slogans like "Let the message wait. Control your fate" and "Stop the texts, stop the wrecks."

It's not Emily Dickinson, but it's not complete crap either.

I especially like how the authors also completely eliminated pre-determination and given us back free will. This is something philosophers have struggled with for centuries, and a couple committees of middle-aged bureaucrats solved it in just twelve meetings and two mission statements. Who says bureaucracy is ineffective?

But I also think these committees try way too hard. Oftentimes, they're trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. How else do you explain "Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'" or the drunk driving slogan, "Get hammered, get slammered"?

I can picture it: it was late at night, the committee was tired, they wanted to go home. Pizza boxes sat empty on the conference room credenza, and tempers were running short. They were just about to shut down for the night and try again in the morning, when the assistant director of HR slapped her hand on the table and shouted, "Eureka! I've got it! 'Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'," she shouted. "It rhymes, it uses the catch phrase, and it drops the G's from the end of the words, like young people do!"

The committee applauded and "Ain't no survivin' textin' and drivin'" was slapped up on billboards around the county. Where it was promptly mocked and ignored.

But death isn't always the underlying message of these slogans. While researching this column, I happened to find "Texting isn't so cool if the crash makes you drool." I'm guessing this one was aimed at scaring people about the possibilities of life as a vegetable.

I can only imagine the self-congratulations at those particular committee meetings. I'll bet more than one person punched themselves on the arm, like Anthony Michael Hall at the end of "Breakfast Club."

But you don't always have to rhyme if you want to get people's attention. My favorite slogan is "Honk if you love Jesus. Text and drive if you want to meet him."

Because there's nothing like gallows humor to make someone think twice about texting.

So I'm going to try a few slogans of my own, and see if I can get my own billboards made.

Does anyone know a good rhyme for "debilitating spinal injury."

Photo credit: WhisperToMe (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.


  1. Love it! Thanks for the morning humor!

  2. We could cover so many driving PSAs in one fell swoop if we posted billboards all over the place that just said, "What would your mother say about what you're doing right now?"

    Oh, and "facilitating final penury."


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