The Rules of Writing Rules

Boris was f***ed at the word at

On a yellow background, a hand holds a sign saying No. Opposite this, another hand holds a megaphone

There have been times during this elongated episode of Black Mirror, when I've found myself wondering what would happen if, instead of staying home or alert, we had been told to do something else to "Protect the NHS" and "Save Lives".

Nothing too crazy, like, I dunno, drink bleach. No something just a little unusual, like "Stay In Bed. Stay Naked".

I imagine there would have been a huge public outcry. I should think we would all have been calling for Boris' resignation; thumbs a-whirr as we punched out another scream-tweet. Of course, we would be doing this whilst wearing nothing but our duvets - you know, just in case - but we'd show them we weren't going to take this nonsense lying down. As we were lying down.

Whether we agree with them or not, we all need rules. Tell us we have to do something and the majority will always acquiesce, even if we don't agree with them. Rules have nothing to do with what is right or wrong as, arguably, right and wrong are simply conceptual thoughts.

While we may like to think laws are signifiers of a moral society - to be followed as good citizens - you only need to look back a few years at laws banning women voting, alcohol drinking, or homosexuals homosexualing to see how little morals are involved.

What is there that we currently have as illegal that, in years to come, will have been repealed and looked back on with the eyes of historical apology. What we see as wrong now, that will seem naive and undemocratic, unfair and prejudiced.

The content of rules is less important than the security we feel knowing they're there. For the silent-except-for-clapping-on-Thursday majority, doing what they are told because "Mum said". And for the self-righteous, anti-anythings, whose entire self-validation hangs on having something to oppose. Well, that and unerring blindness to their own hypocrisy.

A world with no rules

As we have seen, leave us to our own devices for even ten minutes, and the best we can do is start stockpiling toilet rolls and pasta. And we only do that because we saw someone in Australia doing it. Without rules, we are the proverbial headless chickens. But without the rest of the chicken.

Which is why we care about the jingoistic advertising slogans the Government released as they switched strategy from Herding… to herding; aiming to initiate behaviour change through social normalisation. The hope is to build mass uptake, as trust is increased when others are seen to already be acting on trust.

We take comfort in the actions of our neighbour, as Stevie Wonder would take comfort in the hand of Roy Orbison for a stroll along Beachy Head.

"Fuck off do I listen to the Government's stupid messages," says the man from behind his "How Not to listen to the Government's stupid messages" pamphlet, as issued to all households by the Government.

It’s not easy to get people to do stuff

Setting rules is hard. You’ll know that if you have children. Or if you're a fascist dictator. Or if you manage a team in your office. Or if you’re alive.

For a start, you have to remember that we're all quite busy doing all this existing. Think of the millions of computations our brains go through every day; working overtime just so we don't kill ourselves lolloping from the bedroom to bathroom to defecate.

On top of that, we're quite simple.

Being simple and busy means we can only take on board a single unit of additional information at a time. Preferably one that we don't have to consciously examine. If you want to introduce new behaviour, you need a message that is as impossible to misinterpret - and as simple to undertake - as Walk, Don't Walk.

From this perspective, the first part of the original “C-19” message worked as well as can be expected in our world of pedantry. And it has the added bonus of being able to be used threateningly – as testified by the number of times you'd have been shouted at to "Stay Home you Stupid C**t" if you stepped outside your front door in April. The law may be officiated but laws, we create ourselves. You can pull it apart by questioning the definition of "home" if you've time on your hands. But, on face value, it’s simple and memorable.

Well, almost memorable.

The Mirror, The Mail,, Manchester Evening News, and Scotland’s First Minister, Jimmy Krankie and many more, took a liking to Stay Home. For those paying attention, that wasn’t the official Government wording, seen on press briefing podiums and souvenir door drops. That had an extra word.

The phrase was Stay At Home.

Does a missing preposition matter?

The official HM Government Door Drop on COVID
An Offline Website

Grammatically, and from a general sense of interpretation, not entirely.

Semantically, including the ‘at’ makes the statement active, like an order that requires an action, (equivalent to ‘Go Home’), whereas without it, it’s a passive comment of inaction (like ‘Carry On’).

But who wants to get into debates about the adverb, noun, or prepositional values of the word home? Who gives a fig that we are so Americanised and language lazy that if we can drop two letters, by God we are going to do it?

Nonetheless, there is a ripple effect. It’s the first chink seen in the message that needs to be as clear as ‘Walk’. It’s a crack that slowly expands and exposes what amounts to just being a few vague words strung together, not the pandemic-saving oration Boris so desperately wanted. This seemingly small nuanced inconsistency is the first clue that the Government didn't own the message and are still not in control of it,

This tiny difference should have made it clear that the approach taken with the second message was doomed to failure. And not just because nobody knows how to Stay "Alert".

To amend an existing message as happened here – rather than create a second something new – allows you to benefit from the zeitgeist you’ve already built, so saving the time it would take to reexplain.

But as we have seen, there are risks to filling the second album with just remixes. If the original is not as flawless as you think - if it’s actually just being held together by string and sticking plaster - then it will unravel the moment you pick at it.

In the race to photoshop Stay Alert memes, it appears we may have overlooked the fact that the real problem with the second message was that it was spawned from the bad blood of the first.

By the way, in case you think the better option would have been to leave the message as it was, you're wrong. And it's your fault. With the average attention span now less than 8 seconds, your inherent ennui switches you off to messages as soon as…..Ok. You've moved on now haven't you?!

#stayalert #stayathome #covidmessaging #extrawords #badadvertising #emptywords #humanise #humanising

1 Extra Word writes copy and develops content that humanises businesses to thank, help, reward - and generally flirt with - their customers, prospects and employees.
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