Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson got a taste of this when he announced a new, phased plan to ease the UK coronavirus lockdown, and with it a shiny new slogan: ‘Stay alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’
The "vague and meaningless" strapline was widely mocked following the announcement, and unified critics who lambasted the new directive as a communications blunder with big consequences for the Government and its COVID-19 strategy.
We often associate slogans with political campaigns, where they serve an obvious purpose and communicate a clear call to action – 'vote for me'.
Campaign slogans with a sharply articulated claim and emotional through-line are more likely to land with target audiences.
Trump’s 'Make America great again' spoke to the disenfranchised working poor, playing on fear and nostalgia.
This isn’t to say vague and pithy slogans can’t be effective, and Barack Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ became a unifying cry on the campaign trail – although this may speak more to the man and the moment than the mantra.
The most effective slogans deliver a clear message, leaving no room for doubt or confusion.
At the 1996 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair famously said that his top priorities on coming in to office were: "Education, education, education."
Perhaps he was inspired by the famous advertising slogan, ‘It does what it says on the tin.'
The 'rule of three' is also a running theme, but political messaging is an art, not a science.
Johnson himself is a master in the art of the slogan, which makes this misstep all the more surprising.
The Government’s original COVID-19 slogan – ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ – was widely adopted and observed by the general public.
Before he took the reins at Downing Street, Johnson’s ‘Take back control’ rallying cry altered the course of the EU Referendum and he secured a landslide majority in the general election running on ‘Get Brexit done’.
Meaningful behaviour-change campaigns challenge the way people think, feel and act with an ‘ask’ that is both clear and achievable.
It’s easy to be cynical of Civil Service straplines, but public health slogans have the potential to save lives.
Global ‘Smoking kills’ campaigns are an obvious example. ‘Stay home’ was a brutally simple directive, delivered without apology as a clear and achievable call to action.
‘Stay alert’, on the other hand, is imprecise and rings hollow, and many Brits have voiced confusion and fear, left wondering how to ‘stay alert’ when faced with an invisible enemy.
In the past week, confidence in the Government’s handling of the crisis has dropped, but the wider impact of the messaging misfire remains to be seen.
Given the reception, the Government is likely to phase out the new strapline over time, but the ‘Stay alert’ slogan will be hard to forget.
Lucy Chapple is head of strategy at Stand Agency
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