The Consequence and Rhythm of Political Language

A successful political slogan is like a poem of blame

The Words Now or Never written repeatedly on a brick wall

Broadly speaking, for a strong message to permeate the masses, there are two ways it can be constructed to help:

Conscious consequence

Don't explain. Just make clear the consequences of action (or inaction). This allows you to explicitly link the cause and effect, so placing responsibility for the outcome squarely at the feet of the individual.

  • It's "Drink Water, Live Longer", "Give Blood, Save Lives" "Spend £1, Win a Million".

Not easy to get caveat-free but, when you can, they're hard to reject.

Repetition and rhythm

Due to the small number of two- or three-word sentences that can be said without caveats, repeating a simple message with an easily memorable rhythm is the more common way to get your message to permeate skulls and often uses The Power of Three.

Threesomes work ("teehee - he said threesomes") because they appeal to our brains’ love of patterns and our brains’ laziness (three being the smallest number to make a pattern (four exhausts us)). So, three words or phrases with a rhythm or repetition, create an appealing earworm.

  • It’s "Veni, Vidi, Vici" or "Education, Education, Education".

  • Or even "(An apple) (a day) (keeps the doctor away)".

Repetition trumps the triple - so you can repeat as much as you like, provided you remain on the right side of water torture. Famously Dr King had eight dreams, Churchill wanted seven fights. Though Churchill's war speech specifically illustrates the impact this can have on the rest of the message.

With his call to arms creating a lengthy 60-word sentence - a third of those words being either 'we', 'shall' or 'fight' - our brains quickly generally forget where we are meant to be fighting. If you haven't studied the passage, you're likely to struggle after beaches, landing grounds and fields. Which, no coincidence, is three.

Without rhythm, three becomes just a list. Meaning all bets are off.

Stay (At) Home tries to use both approaches. And as with most unhappy marriages, it quickly splinters apart under the ill-fitting compromise.

Exactly who is leading whom?

My hunch is that the first version presented was probably Stay Home. Save Lives.

Consumer: Wow, I get that. I'm stopping in. I ain't no murderer.

Clean, simple, memorable. Job done.

Until they realised that it was both too vague ("10 lives or a million lives? How could we ever prove that?") AND too specific - the implication being that the direct consequence of your inaction would be a reduction in deaths.

Being a direct consequence usually implies the consequence was direct.

Which, in these circumstances, isn't, well, you know, strictly true.

Before you throw stones at my head, yes, of course, the endgame is to reduce the number the deaths from this unseen killer. But that could be the endgame to a thousand other rules and would put us in lockdown in perpetuity.

We would never see anyone smoke a cigarette in a street. Alcohol would only ever be taken in moderation. Cars would rarely be used, and when they were, only by key workers and in exceptional emergency circumstances.

Bedroom Window
Personal Views, Personalised Beliefs

Staying at home does not directly save lives.

It stops others from being able to treat people. The thing we directly impact by staying at home is the risk of the virus being passed on to an unknown number of people, that had not been forecast, so all needing the NHS at the same time. We were panic-buying beans to stop an equivalent “panic buying” of NHS beds.

The intended direct impact of us staying at home was to “flatten the curve”. I’m not doing politics, only words.

From Wikipedia:

“to reduce the number of cases at any given time—known as "flattening the curve"—allows healthcare services to better manage the same volume of patients”


“The same number of people may get sick, but the infections happen over a longer span of time, so hospitals can treat everyone”.

Not quite as snappy. Not quite as powerful. Not saving lives.

A picture in monochrome of an empty operating theatre in a hospital

Humanising the NHS

Of course, I am just hypothesising about the process of the message’s development, But it does seem that decisions were being made on the back of other decisions instead of being considered with fresh eyes. If this was the case, this was the point to rip it up and start again. Otherwise, they were going to have to give a consequence to another consequence.

Remember, the importance of a single unit of information? They didn’t. And the simplicity of the message eats itself.

The approach taken was to humanise the NHS, to create the next best thing to human life for the emotional pull which would encourage action. Not the real underpaid NHS, but the romanticised misty-eyed version, with the smiling - or teary - faces of real nurses and doctors representing real life.

Humanise the NHS but keep it at arm's length. distant enough so we talk of key workers and the "brave them" but gloss over the irony that we're happy to pay so little for a service so apparently valued.

Humanise it as the NHS of fiction, so we can all play a part and make lives better in our cosy world by providing the help a fictional NHS needs; painting rainbows, having stores open at special times, clapping once a week, and giving away prizes on TV shows,

It makes us feel better, And it blurs the lines. It confuses the true message. And it seems to have done so rather successfully.

"Ooh as we have to use a determiner before NHS (you can't Protect NHS without the 'the') then the rhythm of Stay, Save is lost so we might as well be grammatically pedantic and put the 'at' before home"

...were, I imagine, the added value words of Bozza.

"But it uses the Power of Three," I hear you cry.

Except it doesn't. It has no rhythm and the repetition is interrupted. It is just three short standalone sentences.

A creative concept of a pill box with the headline You Are the Cure and the pills are all people

What difference does it make?

It’s not over yet but whenever there is room for interpretation there is room for misunderstanding, The sentences are already being used alone, getting reordered and adapted and creating new meaning.

Glance at local press coverage and you see versions ranging from the tweaked “Stay home. Stay Safe” to the edited, cause and effect implying “Stay at home to save lives’” right up to the scaremongering “thousands will die if people don’t co-operate with stay at home”.

And creative executions - like the one above - by every designer with a social media account that may be powerful, but are not factual.

The problem is that the message only works in its totality. But its totality has been muddled and disappears like verse two and three of the National Anthem – leaving everyone with their own belief that they are right.

And this is while we are still living in our own bubbles. Just look at the vitriol of the self-appointed witch-hunters, as they shame people outside on social media. And when we do go outside? Could we see vigilantes heroically saving lives by taking the lives of anyone not wearing a face mask?

And from these foundations, came the adapt…

#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. Whatever your brief, if you think people should enjoy your emails, socialise your social posts and have fun with your FAQs, visit
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