Wednesday, December 27, 2006

When Catchphrases Go Bad

Few marketers can argue with the elegance of simple catchphrases: "I'm lovin' it," "Like a Rock," whatever. I would even argue the "Intel inside" tone and the PS2 "start noise" are both, in their own way, catchphrases. The old rule states that someone has to hear something seven times before it becomes true in their mind, so endlessly repeating "I'm lovin' it" during an NFL game or the PS2 start noise after every PlayStation ad isn't something negative - it's good, if traditional, marketing.

It's also a tactic that the Bush administration has used, and used quite effectively. "Flip-flopper" to describe John Kerry. "Stay the Course" for the War in Iraq. And so on. The Daily Show is excellent at catching them in the act: their montages of different Republican-fed talking heads on various news channels, repeating the same catchphrases, are like a Marketing 101 textbook on how to repeat a message seven times. Bam. Truth.

Except there's a problem: what happens when one of your catchphrases turns out to be dead fucking wrong? Catchphrases work fine for McDonald's: who's going to argue with "I'm lovin' it?" Fast food isn't exactly the cutting edge of discourse. However, when you apply catchphrases to politics in such an aggressive manner, it's almost like a law of diminishing returns: eventually, somewhere, somehow, you'll be wrong. Like with "Stay the Course." "Stay the Course" was being used up until a week before the midterm elections. Now, it's strangely absent from Republican "discourse" (talking points.) Rather, it's a "new course."

So what does this represent, aside from their own massive "flip flop?" Is Bush really any more of a waffler than Kerry?

The answer, interestingly enough, comes from John Kerry himself in a recent WaPo editorial (hat tip: Mark Evanier.) Kerry is necessarily political in his OpEd, but there's good stuff in there:

Changing tactics in the face of changing conditions on the ground, developing new strategies because the old ones don't work, is a hell of a lot smarter than the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again with the same tragic results.

I knew from the beginning that the "stay the course" meme would eventually fall flat on its face, and Kerry identifies what anyone who has engaged in discourse beyond a Kindergarten level can tell you: changing your mind and adapting to situations isn't negative, waffling, flip-flopping, it's what adults do. It's what makes humans great, that we are so adaptable. We can live in almost any climate, often with very little environmental impact if we so choose. So why should we be accused of flip-flopping when we adapt to the situation?

While the child liberal in my would love nothing more than to climb on top of the nearest building with a bullhorn and declare "George W. Bush is a waffling flip-flopper!" that would really do nothing but buy into the exact same catchphrase nonsense.

Part of the challenge of new marketing is that we can't rely on these catchphrases anymore. You can't expect your meme to circle the Internet in the same way "The Ohio Farmer" circulated for William Henry Harrison in the 1800s, or even "knock down this wall" did for Reagan in the 1980s. The Net is like the old game of telephone, multiplied by a thousand: your messages will be tainted and distorted, and more importantly, when your catchphrase turns out to backfire, you'll be held accountable for it in a way unimaginable even ten years ago. While catchphrases will still work in traditional marketing (the PlayStation noise), they are a thing whose relevance is starting to diminish in the new marketing realm, and as this incident indicates, will likely continue in this trend. Marketer beware!

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