What’s with three-word slogans in British politics?

two people discussing, and examples of three-word slogans in the background

After Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’, or Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’, it is now Sunak’s ‘Stop The Boats’ that dominates the British news.

Where does this obsession with three-word slogans come from? Do we see them only in politics? And what do they really tell us?

The Magic Number

In rhetoric (the art of persuading with language) such three-word lists are called hendiatris, from Ancient Greek hèn dià tría meaning ‘one through three’. As old as Caesar (Veni, Vidi, Vici), three-word mottos are now mostly used in business and advertising (e.g., Nike’s Just Do It). In The AMA Handbook of Business Writing, Wilson and Wauson describe the hendiatris as a figure of speech where “three words are used to emphasize one idea”.

It also works with three phrases or sentences as part of an enumeration, better if they are similar in structure or length — this is the tricolon. For instance, the American Declaration of Independence’s ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, or Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ‘We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow’.

The number three seems to be the magic number for many: in Latin, the phrase Omne Trium Perfectum means ‘everything that is three is perfect’. In Chinese, the number 3 (三, sān) is a lucky number because its pronunciation is similar to that of the word ‘birth’. Or in English, consider the saying ‘third time’s a charm’.

In Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark argues:

“the “encompassing” magic of number three (…) in our language or culture, three provides a sense of the whole (…). In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four. The mojo of three offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more.

Why do three-word slogans have such a ring to them? What is often called the Rule of Three has infused marketing and public speaking theories.

Some of the beliefs underlying this rule include scientific arguments such as human’s short attention span and our mastery in recognising patterns. A study in the Journal of Advertising Research shows that audiences are more likely to remember short slogans.

Going further, a 2013 research by marketing and behavioural science professors Kurt A. Carlson and Suzanne B. Shu, finds that “in addition to being more efficient, three positive claims are generally more effective at creating a positive impression than are four positive claims in speeches or other contexts where audiences know the message has a persuasive motive. Three is the optimal number to persuade, and slogans with four words create scepticism, they found.

It is thus not surprising that the Rule of Three has infused political speeches.

What’s in a Slogan?

Etymologically, ‘slogan’ comes from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, a “war or battle cry”. It is now most commonly used for “a motto associated with a political party or movement or other group, or a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising”.

It sometimes carries a negative connotation: as early as the 18th century, slogans were criticised for being insincere. The Oxford English Dictionary registers the following use in 1704: “Your slughons [= slogans] are falsehood and plunder”; and in 1971: “The somewhat disingenuous slogan of ‘ban the bomb’”.

Slogans are catchy because of their simplicity, but it is also what stirs up criticism. Some write they are “cartoonish” and “gloss over detail”, “over-simplifying the problem”. After all, who says the public can’t understand policies if explained with more than three words?

None of these slogans actually give any idea as to what needs to be done or how it can be done. At most, all they do is point out a perceived problem. (…) three-word slogans let politicians get away without saying very much.

George Campkin, “It’s getting boring: the frustrating phenomenon of three-word slogans

Especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been calls to stop punchy slogans that can spread confusion: “The beauty of the three-word slogan is that it can mean different things to different people. But this quality becomes a danger in a public health emergency. Here, the desired result is precisely the opposite: to instruct people unequivocally on what they need to do; to leave no room for misinterpretation; to have everyone extract the exact same meaning from words.”

Maybe three-word mottos should be left to advertisers and artists instead of taken up by politicians.

Indeed, slogans may not always be clear enough to convey a complex policy in just three words. Consider ‘Take Back Control’, in the context of the Brexit campaign: it could mean many different things to different people — ranging from immigration restrictions to financial concerns or the crafting of laws — making unclear what promise leaving the EU would fulfil.

Also, the obsession with repeating the same word three times — ‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair), ‘Growth, growth, and growth’ (Keir Starmer), ‘Build, build, build’ (Boris Johnson), ‘We will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver’ (Liz Truss) — seems to lose the point of a hendiatris entirely… Letting go of ‘three words to convey one idea’, but instead one word three times to convey one idea.

Slogans can be appealing but also dangerous. We need to take time to understand what is meant beyond those few words, or scrap them off entirely and opt for thorough explanations. Because what’s at stake is often too important to settle for three simple words.

Click here to unfold the list of References for this article.

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