Does endless message repetition really work? Over 20 years ago, Peter Mandelson spoke about messaging at a client event I organised. He was compelling, as you might imagine, full of great advice and revealing anecdotes. And I’ll remember to my dying day one particularly pithy piece of advice he gave: “It is only when you’re sick of hearing yourself repeat the same message over and over again that your audience is just beginning to get it.”
The truth of this was brought home to me last week when I saw some research by YouGov showing that only 15% of people polled could spontaneously recall Theresa May’s “Strong and stable” line. Considering the number of times Tory politicians have uttered those words, and with such sheer relentlessness – so much so that journalists and commentators have been pulling their hair out in frustration – you might have expected a better recall rate.
But given also that ‘strong and stable’ isn’t the most inspiring slogan ever, and that 67% of voters tell YouGov they are finding the election ‘boring’, a 15% recall rate is actually pretty good. And, in any case, those who say they will vote Tory (currently around 45%, according to the polls) might well be influenced by a slogan even if they can’t spontaneously recall it.
To my mind, Labour’s ‘For the many not the few’, which they’ve used for donkey’s years, is more evocative and powerful. Yet, during this election campaign their politicians haven’t repeated it with the same ruthless and robotic discipline that the Tories have mustered. So, according to YouGov, only 2% of people recall it. A poor return.
Drilling the message into the voter’s minds by endless repetition is, clearly, an important part of an election-winning strategy. But for communications strategists, there is another vital consideration: the slogan has to be credible. It has to have a ring of convincing and distinctive truth about it – preferably in a way that puts the opposing parties in a negative light.
For example, Ed Miliband could never have used ‘strong and stable’. It wouldn’t have suited him. Likewise, David Cameron would have struggled with ‘for the many not the few’, which, of course, made it all the more potent for Labour. But ‘strong and stable’ really is a good line for the doggedly determined Theresa May. Likewise, ‘take back control’ was a beautifully simple shorthand for the Leave campaign last summer, and ‘make America great again’ resonated with Trump supporters at least in part because it reflected the candidate’s seemingly unshakable self-belief. ‘Yes we can’ was the ideal accompaniment to Barack Obama’s young and fresh surge for the Presidency in 2008, as he broke through all sorts of glass ceilings.
It takes time to find the ideal strapline, mantra or slogan – in political marketing just as in advertising. It requires trial and error. But once you land on a line that works, you need to commit to it and, yes, repeat it as often as you dare. The lesson of this election, so far, is that endless repetition makes journalists groan and moan – but it really does work.