The Empty Truth About Slogans

January 27, 1991|By WILL ENGLUND

Got a problem? Get a slogan.

There's no difficulty that can't be put to rights with a few catchy words. There's no failing so intractable that it can't be treated with a finely tuned phrase. The world might be falling apart, but if you can put out a punchy slogan then clearly all will be well. Something like, "The world: We're in this one together."

The best thing about slogans is they do the work for you. Is the world beset by mistrust and misunderstanding? The solution is easy. "The world: We're in this one together." Is the world torn by war and famine? "The world: We're in this one together." Is the world in the path of a speeding comet? "The world: We're in this one together."

Slogans really haven't gotten that global yet, but why shouldn't they? They're so painless, so unarguable, so nimble. Disputing a slogan is like trying to nail the wind. Impossible. But let me try anyway.

Let's keep going with the wind idea for a moment longer. Have you ever stood downwind of a balky sewage treatment plant, or of a burned-out house the day after a heavy rain, or of an ill-tuned bus? What you know is that the wind is rushing away from the problem, yet you get a strong hint as to what the problem is.

Slogans can be like that. They're headed one way (and they want to take you along), but unavoidably they make it pretty clear what's gone wrong back the way they came from.

"Baltimore: The city that reads." What is so spectacular about this slogan is that it is precisely not true. You could hardly ask for a better summation of what's wrong with Baltimore. The city has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the nation; it has the highest proportion of high school dropouts among the adult population of any city in the nation; it has a continuing dropout problem that ranks it near the top nationwide.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke unleashed the slogan because he recognized those problems. It was a way of attacking them. It was a way of getting people on the bandwagon. It was a way of promoting solutions. It was government by wishful thinking.

Mayor Schmoke had his predecessor's example, of course. "Baltimore's Best." That slogan strongly suggested that someone out there believed Baltimore to be something less than best. But as grating as it was, it was part of William Donald Schaefer's one-man campaign to make Baltimoreans feel better about their city, and today many do, thanks to his efforts. Seemingly it worked. So why shouldn't Mr. Schmoke achieve the same success with his slogan?

Two reasons. First, making its residents feel good about their hometown isn't quite the same thing as making it the best. Mr. Schmoke's own slogan would seem to recognize that there's room for improvement. Second, Mr. Schaefer was trying to create an illusion, one that he hoped would be very powerful. Mr. Schmoke is trying to create a fact.

Let's say I moved to Milwaukee and adopted a personal slogan: "Will Englund, Rich Man." If I went around telling everyone I was rich, with enough conviction (that is, insincerity), probably enough people would begin treating me in such a way that I could at the very least live as a rich man, and perhaps even become one. Money is so closely tied to image and expectation that -- for a short while, at least -- I could probably pull it off.

But how different it would be if I went to Milwaukee and proclaimed myself, "Will Englund, World's Best Basketball Player." That's not something you can fake. You can put that to the test. It's a fact. And it wouldn't be me.

But that's frivolous, and slogans are not put to frivolous uses. Baltimore doesn't go around boasting about its traffic, for instance, because although traffic is a problem here -- and problems are supposed to be attacked through denial -- it's not that big a problem. It's not worth wasting a wishful thought over.

Atlanta has a particularly revealing slogan. "The city that's too busy to hate." Whoa. Where did that come from? You hear that and you know Atlanta must have a problem -- either it's not busy enough or it's afflicted by hate, or maybe both.

Drivers coming out of the tunnel into Hampton, Va., are met by a large billboard proclaiming, "Downtown Hampton -- Where the action is."

How many motorists veer off Interstate 64 in search of action? And how many others, possessing even a scrap of knowledge about the state of America's downtowns, realize that Hampton is struggling valiantly to put tough times behind it?

That's the thing about slogans. People are on to them. You hear one and you know it's not merely empty -- you know it must not be true. Something inside you tells you they wouldn't need a slogan if it were true.

I sat on a jury recently, on a minor drug case. The arresting police officer was describing his assignment the night of the incident. "We were patrolling a drug-free zone -- you know, an area where there's a lot of drug dealing going on," he said.

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