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Talking Trump – the oddly boring world of election campaign copywriting

By Andrew Boulton

April 27, 2016 | 6 min read

American elections – much like volcanoes, fist fights and the achievements of ex-partners – are best viewed from afar.

This latest instalment of global politics’ best-publicised cock fight has been uncommonly entertaining – particularly if you lack the imagination to envisage a future version of yourself shaking your fist and screaming ‘f*cking Trump!’ right before the nuclear apocalypse reduces you to a fizzing puff of vapour.

But, laying aside the gaudy hysterics of the central characters, the American election is also a remarkable insight into modern political copywriting.

The American political model is unashamedly commercial, with the vastness of budgets and the sheer tonnage of advertising having no small influence on a candidate’s performance and perception.

Part of this comes down to financial stamina, and often the deepest pockets will reach the latter stages of a contest that leaves a smelted river of bullion in its wake.

But, that’s not to say that finance alone can trump (as it were) advertising, especially advertising that resounds with an influential and sizeable voter demographic.

Slogans are often the best (ok, most amusing) way to evaluate a candidate’s credentials, if not as a president but at least as a compelling and relevant communicator.

Starting, where else, with Trump we see a slogan that perfectly reflects the ethos of his whole campaign – himself. The word Trump (sadly lacking the gaseous connotations of these shores) is the dominant feature of the slogan, giving it an almost cartoonish malevolence, even without the context of knowing the man himself.

Secondary to the name is ‘America’, or more specifically his pledge to make it ‘great again’. Here, from a language point of view at least, we sigh.

As sloganeering goes it’s tepid and conventional in a way that the man himself – whatever your opinion of him may be – is not.

And yet amongst his frothing, snarling, yet chillingly substantial band of supporters, those words perfectly reflect their wishes. Unimaginative as the words may be, they have jolted awake some decidedly modern mythical beasts – not least a half-eyed, spiritual-irredentism and a frantic sense of build-a-wall nationalism.

But if Trump’s mantra is disappointingly pallid next to the implausible reality of the man, the attempts of other candidates have been, in many ways, slightly more entertaining.

Ted Cruz’s simple ‘Trusted’ is a neat, if a little over-clever piece of wordplay, while Bernie Sanders’s ‘A Future To Believe In’ struggles markedly alongside such internet-generated gems as ‘Feel the Bern’.

‘Hillary for America’ – while just as guilty of erecting a citadel to the brand-name as the (tee hee) ‘Trumpers’ – is a typically softer and more positive stance. While Trump will jackboot us all to a reinvigorated America, Hillary will buy you a coffee and listen to your problems.

(Incidentally, the surnaming of male candidates against the first name approach of the Hillary campaign either says something telling about the feminisation of the vote, or about a lingering antipathy towards a certain, nimble-fingered Mr Clinton).

Lesser-known Democrats trotted out some fairly stodgy fare, from Martin O’Malley’s woeful ‘Rebuild the American Dream’ to the gloriously named Lincoln Chafee promising ‘Fresh Ideas for America’ – a promise so damp he may as well have promised firmer handshakes or faster kettles.

In fact, if we were to assign a common theme to this campaign’s efforts it would be a straight scrap between platitude, cliché and overly-earnest whimpering.

What is startling (or not, depending on how closely you follow this curious little corner of copywriting) is not so much the absence of imagination, but the grinding homogeny of it all.

Chris Christie is ‘Telling It Like It Is’ and we can only presume no one else provides such a lofty service. John Kasich tells us that he is ‘Kasich for USA’, cunningly stealing a march on all those candidates who were campaigning on behalf of Iran, France or Blackburn.

Thankfully, there are a handful of slogans that offer a hint of invention. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul plumped for ‘Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream’, which at least earns the honour of being the only offering to sound like a song co-written by Bruce Springsteen and Skynet.

Ben Carson – Republican, Neurosurgeon and upsetter of many – went for a somewhat less conventional triumvirate of ‘Heal, Inspire, Revive’. (How such a thoughtful, whisperingly Christian and almost poetic message sits alongside his claim that the so-called Obamacare bill is worse than slavery is a matter for sharper political minds than mine.)

My favourite effort from this batch belongs to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal, a Republican candidate of Indian descent, plumped for the cheery motto ‘Tanned, Ready and Rested’.

Borrowed from a phrase commonly associated with Richard Nixon, Jindal was aiming to take a satirical swipe at the concept of ‘hyphenated Americans’ and express withering contempt for a perceived ‘obsession’ with his skin tone. Unfortunately, all it achieved was to further alienate him from the very South Asian community he was trying to amuse.

Whether you take the generous view that this was merely an act of misfiring ‘bants’ or that it was instead indicative of just another a horribly detached politician, as a piece of copy it at least dangled a toe in the direction of playfulness.

Worryingly though, in amongst the odd and underwhelming campaign language, one word continues to dominate, permeate and resonate. And, all of a sudden, that word doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.

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