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It’s getting boring: the frustrating phenomenon of three-word slogans

Three-word slogans; they’ve been around for ages, but have recently taken centre-stage like never before. They’ve previously littered billboards and TV adverts, but have now managed to wriggle their way into the heart of politics. Whilst that’s not a major problem per se, I think the way that they’re now being used cannot be healthy for our democracy. 

You might protest that three word slogans in politics are nothing particularly new. Indeed, if you trawl through the slogans used in UK General Elections over the last couple of decades, you’d struggle to find many that don’t fit this form. ‘Forward, not Back’, ‘Vote for Change’, ‘Ambitions for Britain’, ‘Make the Difference’, and ‘Yes We Can’ are but a taste of the wider smorgasbord. The format has been oft-used by every party for some time now. And for good reason – it’s a highly effective tool. The rule of three is a rhetorical device as old as time. Call it what you want – tricolon, tripartite motto, hendiatris, or even omne trium perfectum – it works. There’s a reason why Caesar didn’t tack another word beginning with ‘v’ onto ‘Veni, vidi, vici’, and why Nike chose ‘Just Do It’.

They provide a safety net for politicians to fall back on when they start to face difficult questions or real scrutiny

When you come across a political slogan that doesn’t conform to the rule of three it comes off as a bit clunky. Take ‘The Labour way is the better way’ or ‘You can only be sure with the Conservatives’. They just don’t quite have the same ring to them. So then, what’s the problem with them being used? Politicians are just deploying a tool once deployed by the likes of Cicero and Quintilian. Perhaps so, but it seems like they are starting to go beyond its normal use. It now not only appears at every election, but also pops up every couple of months in between. Since ‘Take Back Control’, the initial three-worded brainchild of Dominic Cummings, we’ve had classics like ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘Unleash Britain’s Potential’ and ‘Hands, Face, Space’. The latest of this Government’s was a particularly imaginative ‘Build, Build, Build’.

Very aptly, I have three main issues with three-word slogans. The first is just how vacuous they are. Look back at the examples I’ve given so far; did they actually tell you anything? Take Blair’s famous ‘Education, Education, Education’ as an example. What does that actually say? Yes, it says the word ‘education’ three times, but what good does that do? None of these slogans actually give any idea as to what needs to be done or how it can be done. At most, all they do is point out a perceived problem. Even ones that seem to be telling you what needs to be done like ‘Get Brexit Done’ are really just pointing out that what hasn’t been done already.

None of these slogans actually give any idea as to what needs to be done or how it can be done

My second problem with them is that they try to fix cracks with a lick of paint. They cover up real issues either by pretending that everything is fine and dandy, or by massively over-simplifying the problem. Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ is a perfect example of the former strategy. Of all the ways to describe that government, I do not think those two adjectives would spring to mind. Boris’ ‘Build Back Better’ captures the second strategy well. He should have given us that bit of gold dust sooner! Why on earth were we worrying about the complexities of the country’s infrastructure when all we have to do is build it back better?

Thirdly and finally, three-word slogans let politicians get away without saying very much. They provide a safety-net for politicians to fall back on when they start to face difficult questions or real scrutiny. Every time a journalist starts to push the politician into the realm of discomfort, they can just turn to the relevant page of their ‘Little book of three word slogans’ and recite their favourite one. No need to even try to particularly match it to the question asked. As long as they go for something along the lines of changing/unleashing/building something better/faster/stronger they shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Despite not being a fan of the whole genre of political slogans, my distaste for three-word slogans in particular is precisely because they are so good at doing what they are supposed to do. The problem arises because there’s nothing good about what they are supposed to do.

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