What makes a campaign slogan hit -- or miss?

Story highlights

  • Slogans of Mike Huckabee, George Pataki and Lincoln Chafee deserved obscurity, says John McWhorter
  • McWhorter: Bernie Sanders has been on target with his slogans: Hillary Clinton less so

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)"From Hope to Higher Ground." "People Over Politics." "Fresh Ideas for America." Those have been the campaign slogans of Mike Huckabee, George Pataki and Lincoln Chafee, and those slogans may have played a part in why many of us had a hard time remembering they were even ever running.

Presidential campaign slogans are created to help inspire allegiance and change minds amid the immediate, present-tense, in-your-face hurly-burly of an election campaign. Yet they are, too often, a conservative genre. Too many campaign slogans, if men, would wear double-breasted suits.
John McWhorter
This is because it's easy to miss how modern times have changed how we hear language.
    For one, to reach the modern American ear, nothing is ever more useful in our times than a colloquial, and even slangy, touch. The past 50 years have witnessed a revolution in public language, in which the old-time notion that speeches and serious writing required language decked out in its Sunday best has become irretrievably antique.
    Characters curse freely on television. A Consolidated Edison ad campaign has photos of workmen decorated with the slangy announcement "On It." President George W. Bush can end a speech with "Let's Roll." Mitt Romney's Disney announcer speaking style, so "Presidential" in 1950s terms, was a hindrance in connecting him with the public in 2012's terms.
    In this context, campaign slogans that take off the tie, so to speak, are effective in a new way. Even back in 1948, "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" stood out to the extent that we remember it today. The slogan was crafted to fit Truman's specifically no-nonsense personality, and in our times so deeply fond of the informal and the vernacular, candidates should milk any "down-to-earth" aspect of their persona via slogans of similar feel.
    George W. Bush's "America's Top Gun," using a flinty, barstool military phrase associated with an especially popular red-blooded movie, channeled not only the Iraq War Bush had initiated but the "folksy" facet of his public image. Bill Clinton's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" was especially deft. The phrase itself is hardly slangy, but it calls to mind Fleetwood Mac's comfy, bluesy song -- beer, friends, your college days.
    These days, then, Chris Christie's "Telling It Like It Is" struck just the right note, in the practical sense, for Christie's pugnacious style; unfortunately, it wasn't enough to make his candidacy viable and he dropped out after losing in the New Hampshire primary.
    It isn't an accident that though Bernie Sanders' official slogan is "A Political Revolution is Coming," in popular consciousness "Feel the Bern" has more impact. It's not just the pun; it's also that the expression "Feel the burn" sounds young and daring, like teenagers ingesting God knows what in a parking lot or basement.
    Sanders should go with it, just as at least one way Jeb Bush has been on the right track with his "Jeb Can Fix It."
    Another element that modern slogans ought to channel is a sense of dramatic urgency. It is already well-known that effective slogans mention the future, change and tomorrow. However, one could step that up, so to speak, via an implication that change is not simply in the future, but imminent.
    That sensibility, encouraged by the immediacy of social media, has a major currency in today's culture. Think of the expression "It's on!", hotter than the old "Here we go!" "Here we go!" suggests a ride; "It's on!" suggests the greater immediacy of a battle, a party or a hookup.
    Something shocking is just on the horizon. Think Pink, as in her "I'm Coming Out (So We Better Get This Party Started)" song, again tickling the listener for three minutes with the promise of hot times just ahead, even if they never actually quite occur. Think television today, where so often there are no longer even commercials between shows -- the opening shot of the next show flashes on hot on the heels of the ending credits of the last one, heralded by an announcer scripted with variations on "It's on!"
    In this, if 1) Herbert Hoover had actually used "Prosperity is Just Around the Corner" as a slogan (he actually never even said it) and 2) the economy happened to actually be on the rise, then the slogan would have been as fondly remembered as "Give 'Em Hell, Harry."
    In this, Sanders' "A Political Revolution is Coming" strikes the perfect note of imminence. Marco Rubio's "A New American Century" also channels the "It's on!" feel effectively, in that our century began rather recently, lending a feeling -- even if artificial -- that we have just embarked upon a voyage into new territory open to exploration.
    Al Gore's "Leadership for the New Millennium" was a bit off in this regard -- a millennium doesn't feel as immediately relevant as a century. Lindsey Graham's "Ready to be Commander-in-Chief on Day One" is clumsy overall, but the "Ready" had possibilities despite the fact that he dropped out. "Ready" lends that note of the powder keg: energy eager for deployment ASAP.
    Candidates' handlers might reconsider, however, their fondness for jamming "America" and the "American Dream" into these slogans. It might seem obvious that people running for national elections might highlight their interest in serving all of the people in our nation. However, terminology has a way of rusting and wearing out.
    Home relief, welfare and cash assistance all refer to the same program. The first two became accreted with negative associations, which is why the third is currently fashionable -- although it, too, will likely need replacement within 20 years or so. Crippled, handicapped and disabled represent the same kind of process, and "differently abled" is now set to continue it.
    In that vein, for many, "America" and "American Dream" now sound more boilerplate than sincere. For working-class and many middle-class Americans, it is increasingly evident that the days when one could raise three children in a decent-sized house without a college education was a three-decade interregnum after World War II. No politician has been able to reinstate the prospects for this "American Dream" since its feasibility began evaporating 50 years ago now, and Americans now know that.
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    To much of the intelligentsia, America is a failed experiment, replete with inequality and guilty of blood spilled around the world. Many black Americans feel that America as a whole has never accepted them as full citizens and never will, heartily supported in that view by leading black thinkers. Anti-immigration rhetoric has made it that many Latinos will find warmth elusive in the term "America" and "American Dream."
    Terms become quaint and loaded and end up sounding insincere. Especially in an era so attuned to the artifice of advertising and spin, it is too easy to hear "American Dream" as a cynical gesture with an air of Troy McClure of "The Simpsons." Certainly, slogans need to indicate a quest to improve hard-working people's lives nevertheless. However, new phraseology is needed.
    As early as 1980, Ronald Reagan's "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?" took the prize in this regard, speaking to voters directly, without the toothpaste grin of summoning the red, white and blue or "dreams." Martin O'Malley's "Rebuild the American Dream," then, was unwise, the equivalent of advertising one's support for "women's lib" rather than feminism or advising teens to be "chaste" rather than "abstinent."
    Yes, Donald Trump's slogan is "Make America Great Again!" -- but note that this would seem flat and fake as the slogan of, say, Jeb Bush. What puts Trump over is his colloquial style: rather than speechifying he just talks, which strokes exactly the sensibility that makes slogans like "It's the Economy, Stupid" and "Yes We Can" so effective in our times.
    Obviously, it takes more than a slogan to get someone elected. However, those who have not fared well this time around could reconsider their slogans the next time out. The Ricks of late, sadly, take the prize on the most unfortunate slogans in terms of the factors I suggest as relevant. Rick Santorum's "Restore the American Dream for Hardworking Families" was earnest, but broke all of the rules, and it's hard to see quite what hopes anyone could have pinned on Rick Perry's "We Must Do Right and Risk the Consequences."
    Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton might reconsider "Hillary for America." The first name adds something of a folksy touch, but there's no drama, the "America" is vague and fake, and it doesn't stand a chance against "Feel the Bern." Then again, "Hillary for America" is mac and cheese compared to Ted Cruz' hideous "Reigniting the Promise for America."
    "Fighting for You," as signs read at her New Hampshire concession speech, would do her proud, however: Fighting is a little "It's on," and "you" these days sounds more real, for better or for worse, than "America."