The Surprising Origins of Famous Slogans

Steven Gambardella

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Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

They are all around us: on billboards, shopping bags and in our kitchen cupboards. Slogans or “Taglines” — those laconic sentences that convey the spirit of a brand — are perhaps the most ubiquitous source of literature in the western world.

Millions of dollars are spent developing and perfecting them. They are designed to change the way you think and feel about a product or a service whilst being as memorable as possible.

Taglines seem throwaway, but many are poetic, some extraordinarily powerful. They are always notoriously difficult to come up with for marketers. The challenge for copywriters is to convey everything you need to sell your brand whilst keeping the words and syllables to a minimum. The art is in the economy, it’s about making every word matter.

Taglines also present cultural and linguistic challenges to global brands. When KFC opened an outlet in Beijing in 1999 its “Finger lickin’ Good” slogan was translated as “Eat your fingers.”

Advertisers use rhyme, rhythm and onomatopoeia to make people remember their slogans, or set them to jingle on radio and TV advertisements. Rhyme and melody are the oldest forms of ensuring information could be remembered.

Taglines also often speak to our deepest needs. A tool marketers use is psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scheme devised for his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. These needs progress from our most basic physical requirement of sustenance at the bottom to achieving our creative potential at the top.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (Source: Wikipedia, author: Chiquo CC BY-SA 4.0)

Well-crafted lines tap into these deep motivators in our psyche to appeal to our instinctive, social or developmental drives.

Coming up with short lines that resonate deeply is a challenging discipline every aspiring writer should try. Many novelists worked as advertising copywriters, even those among the most “high brow” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Martin Amis, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie and Fay Weldon to name a handful.

A shortlist of some of the greatest slogans can teach us as much about our language and culture as it can about skilful marketing. Here are just a few famous lines with surprising origins and extraordinary outcomes.

Nike: “Just Do It”

Nike, by the admission of its founder Phil Knight to Harvard Business Review, is more a marketing-oriented company than a sportswear-oriented company.

All those gimmicks in the ever-evolving roster of Nike’s innovations don’t really do a great deal for the average wearer, but the brand has somehow sold high-end sports tech to the street.

If you consider that the bubble in the sole of a shoe significantly raises its average price, Nike literally sell air to us.

By 1986 Nike were losing market share to Reebok, a British invader that rode the aerobics boom of the mid-1980s. Nike’s stock had dipped below the S&P 500 average for the first time and confidence in the company faltered.

The company needed a new ad campaign that made them top of mind not only for the athlete or enthusiast but also for the casual wearer to tap into the nascent “athleisure” fashion phenomenon that we’re now seeing come to full fruition.

The agency Wieden + Kennedy was brought in to produce Nike’s first television campaign and wanted a tagline to speak to people interested in all types of sport from all walks of life.

The agency’s founder, Dan Wieden, came up with a line from the unlikeliest origin: the last words uttered by double murderer Gary Gilmore at the execution he petitioned for in 1977, “Let’s do it.”

Even without its origin story explained, the line was unpopular with the company and even within the agency, but was deemed necessary to link a disparate set of advertisements.

With the slogan having nothing to do with the products themselves, it was a gamble. The audience response happened to be very positive. People called and wrote in to tell Nike how inspired they were.

The line resonated deeply with athletes and casual wearers alike. Nike incorporated the slogan into its global branding and now sees it more as a philosophy than a tagline. “Just do it” resonates right at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s a cheerleading line for self-fulfilment.

But a tagline it is. It’s a lean and mean line, a masterpiece of bowstring-tight copywriting: three syllables. It’s motivational, empowering and says nothing whatsoever about the quality of the sportswear itself. It’s an ethos to live to the fullest, ironically inspired by a criminal who wanted to die.

KFC: “Finger Lickin’ Good”

It was Dave Harman an early franchisee of the KFC brand that inspired its tagline. Harman appeared in local TV ads eating a plate of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the background while his restaurant manager, Ken Harbough, did the voice over.

Following the transmission of one of the ads, a woman called in to complain that she was upset at the sight of Harman licking his fingers. Harbough responded that it was “finger licking good!”

The response was instantly taken up by Harman as a slogan and became part of KFC’s nationwide branding, locked up with the famous portrait of its founder, Colonel Sanders.

While this tag line seems literal (“this food tastes good”), it is far more than that. Take the missing “g” from “lickin’”. What we have is idiomatic language, not official or polite language.

This is the language of intimacy, not of business or government. It’s the language of home, the language of family, of friends, of comfort and happiness.

The tagline also tells us that the food is to be eaten with the hands, not knives and forks, and food eaten with the hands is food eaten in comfort with friends. It is not official or polite food, it is the food of friendship and family. The line speaks to the needs higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy than we would expect — it speaks to the need to belong.

KFC dropped “Finger lickin' good” for the healthier-sounding but more anodyne “So good” in 2011 only to bring its famous tag line back in 2015.

Apple: “Think different.”

Taglines are designed to be memorable but also to place the product in its market.

The slogans are therefore relative rather than substantive — most of the work a good tagline does is implicit rather than explicit.

They prompt their audience not to make a rational decision but an emotional decision about their place in the world.

If a tagline says, for example, that a product is cheap, it’s not telling you to buy the product because it’s cheap, it’s telling you to buy the product because you’re sensible enough to buy it because it’s cheap. There’s a huge difference.

Challenged with Microsoft’s near-monopoly over the computer industry, a reinvigorated Apple launched its iMac line in the 90s by making them radically different from the “beige boxes” of the PC world.

The colourful line-up of iMacs were preceded by a campaign of stark black and white images of 20th-century movers and shakers like Gandhi, Einstein, Picasso and John Lennon with the two-word slogan “Think different.” in which “different” was colloquially (and ungrammatically) treated as a noun (as in: “think big”).

The art director behind the line, Craig Tanimoto, came up with it in response to the “ThinkIBM” slogan of the PC manufacturing giant. He said he “thought it would be cool to attach those words to some of the world’s most different-thinking people.”

The line was inspirational to Apple customers, a sign that the struggling company was back on its feet. It was equally a challenge to the average PC buyer who’d normally default to the beige box.

Trump ’16: “Make America Great Again”

Whatever you think of the man, it’s hard to deny the power of what has become the most famous campaign slogan in political history.

The line wasn’t actually new, variants of “make America great again” were used by Ronald Reagan in 1980 (“Let’s make America great again”) and Bill Clinton in 1992 (“Together, let’s make America great again”).

Trump stripped out the inclusive words “let’s” and “together” leaving the stark four words as a with-us-or-against-us imperative to the voter. He had the reduced slogan trademarked for a $325 fee soon after Mitt Romney had lost the 2012 election to Barack Obama.

“MAGA” adorned the ubiquitous red hats worn by Trump devotees. Filings show that Trump spent more on the slogan bearing hats than polling or television advertising. Kanye West described his MAGA hat as his “superman cape”.

MAGA has become mythology. It has been appropriated — often subverted — to form thousands of phrases adorning shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers, from “Make America Green Again” to “Make Metallica Great Again”.

The slogan was a barbed leitmotif that appeared all over the campaign, it was brash, bold and combative. America isn’t great any longer, it said, but you can make it so. It is divisive to this day, reflecting a now bitterly divided democracy.

De Beers: “A Diamond is Forever”

This slogan is a favourite among advertisers because it had such a profound effect on our culture. When the Great Depression struck, sales of diamonds plummeted to an all-time low and barely recovered as the Second World War got underway. New and more useful consumer goods had become the favoured engagement gift. In fact, diamond rings were rarely given on the occasion of engagement at all.

By 1947 De Beers had started to invest in advertising but needed a line that spoke as much to women as it did men. Adverts aimed at women, it was believed, would prompt them to ask their boyfriends or husbands for gifts.

Mary Frances Gerety, a copywriter with De Beers’ agency A.W. Ayer, was tasked to come up with a line and did so in a state of exhaustion just before going to bed. Since then the tagline has become one of the most memorable, making its way into books, films and the hit song by Shirly Basey.

By 1951, according to De Beers, eight in ten brides received a diamond ring. The campaign, built around the memorable line, shifted cultural values and social expectations.

The line speaks to our esteem needs as well as our social needs, a neat parallel is drawn between the natural durability of the diamond and the romantic notion that love is eternal.

For better or worse, we’re surrounded by taglines and slogans. They call out from the shelves and windows of stores, from billboards and TV sets, burying themselves into our subconscious.

They can pop into our heads at any time. Most are disingenuous, some are downright cynical. But some of them help, some of them rally us to good causes, some sing and some bring a smile to our faces. What’s undeniable is their power.

“Words,” Rudyard Kipling said, “are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Marketers knew that all along.

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