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Red alert – are we starting to ‘take back control’ of words?

By Andrew Boulton

May 13, 2020 | 5 min read

Creative advertising lecturer Andrew Boulton gives a copywriter’s view of the UK's confusing corona communication.

stay alert

In possibly the slenderest portion of silver lining since David Brent landed that promotion, at least the coronavirus has given us a way to demand more from words.

The government’s new 3-step slogan – Stay Alert. Control The Virus. Save Lives – has attracted, understandably, some ridicule. Imagine that Nike had deposited ‘Just Do It’ in the home for decrepit athletes and unveiled ‘Perhaps Attempt Something’ and we would be at a comparable level of ‘huh?’

The vagueness – some might say, meaninglessness – of the new slogan has at least provided a mass writer's prompt for more eloquent and effective observations. Marina Hyde in The Guardian suggested the slogan ‘reads like it was produced by an off-brand smartphone left running overnight in a Ukrainian bot farm’ – a sequence of words that will be dancing through my mind on those long night-watches in the guard tower, looking out for any virulent microbes tunnelling under the fence.

The slogan – as a human being in search of some small reassurance and a copywriter who would have invoices torn up if I’d presented such an effort – left me miserable. But the loud, collective challenge that it inspired gave me hope that we are, at last, inspecting – and rejecting – words without value. Even when they come from our, sigh, leaders.

We have been, undoubtedly, slow off the mark. George Orwell has been asking us to be angrier at political obfuscation for a long time. In his essay Politics and The English Language he says:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Even the most generous interpretation of the new slogan would find it hard to detect sincerity, or indeed aims. In fact, all there seems to be is fishy ink.

For any lover of words, the last few years in British and American politics have been disconcerting. Some of us were seduced by an impossible promise painted on a bus. Others worshipped a pithy hat and failed to notice the self-serving billionaire sitting beneath it.

In fact, for a while it seemed as if politicians could be as lazy and empty with their words as they liked – there would be no murmur of dissent from us.

Edward Bernays, in the excellent book Propaganda had this to say on the difference between what we read and what we think:

“Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought.”

The volume and variety of this new rebellion against wilfully misleading communication, at least gives us hope that original thought can indeed be poked into action, if a stick is pointy enough and the pointer unreliable enough.

The excuse, if not the defence, is that Westminster operates within a bubble. In fact, Isabel Hardman, in Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, defines this Westminster bubble as:

“An insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored.”

In advertising, and the creative industries as a whole, we’re often guilty of thinking within our own bubble – but I feel as if creatives are more willing to squeeze themselves through the membrane every once in a while, if only to remind ourselves of who we actually need to like and understand what we write.

The clamour may well make this strange and shadowy slogan slip quietly away – shamelessly replaced in a week or two with something the think tank has thinked longer and harder about.

It will not, I’m sure, instantly persuade our politicians to be clearer and more careful with their words. Yet if this is the case then the least we can do is be perfectly clear about what we think about it. I think you’ll find we’ve had quite enough of cuttlefish.

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter and a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter @boultini


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