Monday, March 21, 2011

Witty campaign slogans: Are they a lost art?

A campaign slogan is like a soufflé. A good one rises to perfection. A bad one falls like a stone off a ledge.

- American political analyst Ron Faucheux

I’ve got to ask. Whatever happened to the soufflé? Whatever happened to fun-filled, hard-hitting and provocative political slogans? Songs and ditties seem to be passé and negative advertising is definitely on the rise. In the 2008 Canadian election campaign, we were bombarded with ads telling us that Stephane Dione is not a leader. How witty is that?

South of the border, Republican John McCain used the rather flat and stodgy Country First in his 2008 bid to become president. But wait! A crowd at a McCain rally chanted Use your brain. Vote McCain. That was more fun, but how does it compare with some slogans and ditties of the past?

Let’s look back at some memorable and not-so -memorable campaign songs and slogans. These election ditties were often witty, effective and highly amusing. They could also be disastrous, especially if the timing was wrong.

In 1972, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals boldly proclaimed that The Land is Strong. The slogan failed to resonate with Canadians. It felt flat because it was the wrong message during a time of high unemployment and rising inflation. Unimpressed voters reduced Trudeau’s majority government to a slim minority.

Back in 1935, with the country having suffered through the worst years of the Depression, Mackenzie King’s Liberals came up with a much more successful slogan. They offered voters a choice between King or Chaos. Canadians, feeling that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett was insensitive to their hard times, overwhelming chose King.

One of the most famous and effective presidential campaign slogans in American history was based upon Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nickname. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate in 1952, used the slogan I Like Ike. Voters liked him so much that he twice prevailed over his Democratic rival, Adlai E. Stevenson.

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower ran for re-election. With the Korean War ended, Eisenhower campaigned on a platform of peace and prosperity. Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent for a second time, campaigned under the slogan All the way with Adlai. It turned out, however, that Americans still liked Ike - at least enough to return him to the White House.

In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, also sought a second term as president. He urged Americans to Grant us another term. His request was granted (pun intended) and he won the election handily.

Rhymes sometimes make very potent election slogans. A case in point is William Henry Harrison’s well-known 1812 presidential motto, Tippecanoe and Tyler too. This catchy little ditty served to remind voters that Harrison led United States forces to victory in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. It even included the name of Harrison’s vice-presidential running mate, John Tyler.

It’s interesting to note that Benjamin Harrison resurrected his grandfather’s old slogan when he ran for the presidency in 1888. His motto was Tippecanoe and Morton too. That doesn’t have quite the same ring too it, but it was still good enough to help Benjamin Harrison win the election.

During the 1852 presidential race, Franklin Pierce ran under the slogan We Polked you in ’44, We shall Pierce you in ’52. The 1844 reference was to James K. Polk, a fellow Democrat, who was elected president that year. Pierce himself went on to become the fourteenth president of the United States.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election declaring that He Kept Us Out of War. During the campaign, Wilson spotlighted his ability to keep the peace. By April of 1917, a matter of months later, the United States had officially entered the First World War.

Some campaign songs are unintentionally amusing. During the1908 presidential contest, William Howard Taft’s supporters sang a ditty entitled Get on a Raft with Taft. His detractors must have pointed out gleefully that it wouldn’t have been very safe to get on that raft. Taft was a big, portly man who weighed over 300 pounds, but his campaign, however, did not go overboard. He won the 1908 election over his Democratic adversary, the great orator William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s campaign song was called Line Up For Bryan. Not enough Americans joined the queue.

When it comes to lyrics, it’s difficult to top John Quincy Adams’ 1824 presidential campaign song. Based on a Scottish melody Little Ye Know Who’s Coming, it was a litany of all the apocalyptic disasters that would befall voters if they failed to elect John Quincy Adams. This happy little ditty warned of fire, swords, famine, slavery, plunder and plague. Even "hatin’ and Satan" would be coming if John Quincy "not be comin’."

Sometimes campaign slogans contain no deep message. Far from being profound, they merely play on a candidate’s name. In the 1924 presidential campaign, Calvin Coolidge’s slogan was Keep Cool with Coolidge. In 1928, Herbert Hoover asked the great rhetorical question Hoo but Hoover? Both Coolidge and Hoover succeeded in winning their respective elections. Fellow Republican Alfred M. Landon was not so fortunate.

In 1936, Republicans called upon Landon to prevent the wildly popular Franklin D. Roosevelt from winning a second term in office. It was a Herculean task and Landon bravely campaigned under the slogan Let’s Make It a Landon-Slide. He had no chance against the formidable FDR.

Some slogans just beg for a retort or a parody. During the British election campaign of 1957, Harold Macmillan’s Conservatives told voters that they had Never had it so good. In response, the Labour Party suggested that Britons had never been had so good.

Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, used the slogan In Your Heart, You know He’s Right.  Goldwater’s Democratic opponents responded with In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts. They also countered with In Your Heart, You Know He Might, an allusion to Goldwater’s hawkish reputation and his musings about the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

One of the most popular political buzzwords seems to be “change.” In 1984, Walter Mondale ran for president with the slogan America Needs a Change. Americans, however, disagreed and re-elected Ronald Reagan. In 2003, Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty urged voters to Choose change. The province was decidedly in the mood for change and McGuinty’s Liberals toppled the Progressive Conservative government of Ernie Eves.

In the American presidential race of 2008, Hillary Clinton advised voters that if we’re ready for change, she’s ready to lead. The Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, spoke incessantly of change and renewal. Obama’s campaign slogan was originally Change You Can Believe In. It was later altered to Change We Need. Obama insisted repeatedly that “change is coming to America,” and he set himself up as the agent of that change

Obama’s strategy worked for the Democrats in 2008. History shows that political themes are usually successful if the time is ripe. To be effective, campaign slogans must strike a chord with the electorate. If, they don’t, they end up in the ash heap of losing campaigns – unless they are recycled. Remember Stevenson’s All the way with Adlai? In 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s slogan was All the way with LBJ. 

- Joanne

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