Of the many postmortems of the recent Presidential campaign, one of the most fascinating I've come across is by advertising guru, Al Reis.
Reis, who writes for Ad Age, is the co-author of one of the great books about the business, Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind. His column analyzes why Obama's slogan "Forward" won that battle, hands-down, over Romney's "Believe in America."
Reis argues that a good slogan is "two-sided." "It says something positive about your brand and something negative about the competition."
The Obama campaign's "Forward" did this masterfully. On the positive side, it said that the country was going in the right direction, that if we stayed on the present course the arduous task of recovery would be completed.
But it also implied a powerful criticism of the opposition. It said that Republicans wanted to go backwards, toward old policies and old-fashioned social beliefs.
Romney's "Believe in America" only stated something nice about his agenda. According to Reis, it wasn't "two-sided" because suggesting Obama didn't "believe in America" just wasn't credible. As Reis puts it:
"A country that educated him at Harvard. A country that elected him to the Senate and the Presidency. A country that made him wealthy and world famous.
"Barack Obama doesn't believe in America? Highly unlikely."
As I thought more about the Obama slogan, I saw another advantage to it, also having to do with the fact that "Forward" can be interpreted a number of ways.
This second advantage came to me by way of an odd association. I remembered that the newspaper Benito Mussolini wrote for, before he became a Fascist, was an Italian socialist paper named Avanti! (Forward!)
I googled this fact and found that conservative publications like the Washington Times had made a big deal out of a similar coiincidence. The Obama slogan had deep roots in the European Marxist past, one columnist argued, because "Forward", it turns out, was once the name of many socialist newspapers.
Right wingers were correct in sensing a connection here, but wrong in suggesting that this has anything to do with a "radical agenda." Though the Democrats did (miraculously) get health reform passed, for the most part they haven't been able to push through even classic liberal policies (such as a truly Keynesian stimulus plan or a modicum of gun control). Besides, a booming stock market seems to go more with capitalist, rather than socialist, policies, doesn't it?
So the connection I see is more semantic than political. That is, "Forward" has a double-meaning in another sense. It's not only a description that suggests things are going in the right direction, it's a command that says: "let's mobilize."
But where radical papers of the past were mobilizing for militant actions (strikes, protests, etc.), the Obama campaign uses the word to motivate an action that's positively all-American: voting.
To see what I mean, take a look at the "Forward" campaign video. After the first half minute or so, people start taking to the streets -- waving "four" fingers to underscore how the slogan also refers to "four more years." As the video goes on, it skillfully incorporates the whole Occupy Wall Street energy -- and offers images of each of the key demos the party needed to show up on election day:
Watching this made me think about another weakness of "Believe in America." Belief is usually thought of as something internal. "Forward" is both an inner attitude and an outer action -- a way to move your feet.
You Can't Wait to Get it On
Of course, it takes a lot more than a good slogan to win an election; it's a necessary but not sufficient condition for victory.
Nevertheless, it's a mistake to underestimate a slogan's power. In the ad world, the way a few choice words can position a product sometimes makes all the difference. Ries tells us that Avis lost money 13 years in a row, until they (with the help of Doyle, Dane and Bernbach) launced the statement that turned the whole business around:
"Avis is only No. 2 in rent-a-cars, so why go with us? We try harder."
In our own time, I can think of another line that helped transform the perception of a product: Trojan Condoms' award-winning "You can't wait to get it on." And again, the slogan has a double-meaning: the literal act of wearing it and the slang expression for what you do once it's on.
With the addition of a few stimulating product features, this award-winning line changed something that seemed an anti-pleasure necessity to an orgasmic treat -- for both partners. I'll end this post with one of their recent spots: