The Psychology of Slogans

Muzafer Sherif
Ankara, Turkey

THIS paper aims to handle the psychology of slogans by the application of some major facts that come out persistently in the laboratory investigation of social influence--work which, in turn, is founded on such basic psychological phenomena as judgment and perception. As a new approach to the psychology of slogans it points to the possibility of achieving the all-important feat of welding together everyday actualities and usages with a conceptual scheme developed in laboratory research. This treatment, therefore, cannot be more than an outline.

We shall consider a slogan to be a phrase, a short sentence, a headline, a dictum, which, intentionally or unintentionally, amounts to an appeal to the person who is exposed to it to buy some article, to revive or strengthen an already well-established stereotype, to accept a new idea, or to undertake some action. As will be seen from examples to be given, slogans imply a value judgment.

From this characterization of a slogan it is evident that we do not find any basic difference between business and political slogans. Psychologically the basic dynamics involved in business slogans and political slogans is the same. The reasons for our contention will become clear as our main psychological points are developed. This must not be taken, however, as a denial of the specific properties of business slogans and the appetites and desires to which they appeal, or of political slogans and the situations from which they arise or utilize.

In noticing the importance of slogans in everyday life, social and even applied psychologists are lagging behind practical men who rise and fall by their deeds and words, unlike investigators in academic posts who may change their schemes once every few years without much consequence either to themselves or to their fellow men. Unless we deal with actualities our psychological scheme is but a high-sounding emptiness.

In the business world the importance of a good slogan or trade name is a recognized fact. A well-known advertiser's journal, Printer's Ink, has published thousands of slogans used in business in America. At least a few of them have an effect that lingers on.


Keep that School Girl Complexion
    (Palmolive Soap)

Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet
    (Lucky Strike Cigarettes)

The Nation's Host from Coast to Coast
    (Childs Restaurants)

Berth of a Nation
    (Greenport Metallic Bed Co.)

Built to Wear Without Repair
    (H. Mueller Mfg. Co.)

Not an Accessory, But a Necessity
    (Brown Spring Osler Co.)

Baking Aid that Nature Made
    (Falk American Potato Flour)

Let Taylor Do Your Tailoring
    (J. L. Taylor &, Co.)

Money Saver-Butter Flavor
    (Ohio Butterine Co.)

Time to re-tire
    (Fiske Tires)

It is not within the scope of our paper to examine any one of these slogans separately. In passing we shall only point out that slogans are not magic ways of selling merchandise without offering anything substantial in return. The important and obvious thing for us to bear in mind is that business men, who would not throw out money for nothing, spend large sums in finding and advertising their slogans.

Even academic institutions, which already had their colors, insignia and mottoes, have started learning from business men. For example, a western university announced the following slogan in connection with its 1936 summer school

Summer School where Summer's Cool

Practical politicians and other popular and religious leaders have already used slogans to arouse people to high patriotic, religious, ardor. Since many people do not stop to investigate platforms, politicians try to catch them by slogans. Some of the following examples from American presidential elections summarize real issues; others are more or less catch phrases.

Public Office is a Public Trust   (1884)

This slogan summarized the desire of the people to get rid of the corruption prevalent at the time. Here we cannot go into the history of every slogan.

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Tippecanoe and Tyler Too    (1840 )
Sound Money    (1896)
A Full Dinner Pail    (1896)
You Cannot Crucify Mankind upon a Cross of Gold    (1896)
Back to Normalcy    (1920)
Let's be done with Wiggle and Wobble    (1920)
G. 0. P. - "Gas, Oil, & Petroleum"    (1924)
Keep Cool with Coolidge    (1924)
Coolidge or Chaos    (1924)
Two Chickens in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage    (1928)
Bread, Bonus, &, Beer    (1932)
In Hoover We Trusted; Now We're Busted    (1932)
Vote for Landon and Land a Job    (1936)

As will be readily noticed, at least a few of these slogans do not fit into the times. Slogans are especially effective at critical periods. This, precisely, is the point that we shall elaborate. It is especially in critical tinges that practical politicians utilize slogans most effectively in order to push people in the direction they wish them to go. A few examples from the critical periods of the war and post-war illustrate this point.

In America during the tense days of the World War, "He Kept Us Out of War" was an effective slogan in favor of Wilson's reelection. After America entered the War on the side of the Allies, the intense situation demanded its appropriate slogans, among which two good examples are: "A War to End War" and "Make the World Safe for Democracy." The suffragettes of America were quick to give their version of the famous slogans

"He Kept Us Out of Suffrage" and 
"Democracy Should Begin at Home"

In the confusion associated with misery and insecurity the Nazi propagandists, side by side with their insistence on slogans extolling Aryan blood purity, Nordic superiority and romantic Kultur, utilized socialistic slogans that fitted the temper of the German masses at the time.

Deutschland Erwache
Freiheit and Brot
Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz
Brec hung der Zinsknechtschaft

Some of the slogans used by the Nazis might very well be used by their socialist opponents. But the question as to whether their socialistic slogans are in harmony with the Aryan blood purity and Nordic superiority doctrines is not our problem here.

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The "Share the Wealth" slogan of Huey Long is a similar slogan which caught the imagination of at least a portion of the petit-bourgeois population of America as the way out of their difficulties.

Likewise as part of the program to incorporate everything in Fascism, the Italian Fascists crystallized the chaotic and staggering situation in Italy for the time being. A few slogans may summarize this particular fascist solution:

All within the State, Nothing outside the State, 
    Nothing against the State
A Book and a Rifle Make a Perfect Fascist
A Plow Makes the Furrow but the Sword Will Defend It

Nowadays the newspaper headlines in heavy print also serve somewhat as slogans in that they call attention in dramatic shortcuts to that aspect of the news which falls in harmony with the interests and prejudices of the power or powers that control the paper. The diametrically opposite headlines that conservative and radical papers extract from the same columns of news during the present Spanish Civil War are striking, cases in point. As usual, Hearst papers utilize the occasion in a sensational way to stir up the readers in favor of fascism.

After this brief glance at the actualities in business, politics, and journalism, we may look for the psychological basis of the use and effectiveness of slogans. There are very few psychological studies of slogans. One interesting study is Lumley's Slogans as a Means of Social Control. He calls attention to the dangers that are brought about by the abuse of slogans. His way of summarizing the effectiveness of slogans reads: "You cannot argue with disease germs. You cannot argue with slogans."[2] Lumley does not offer any conceptual scheme in terms of which one can approach the psychology of slogans. His account is empirical. Approaching the subject with the common sense of everyday life, he says: "The features which make slogans so effective are too numerous even to mention, let alone to delineate, in this paper." Nevertheless, he cites fourteen features: (a) Rhythm; (b) Alliteration; (c) Alliteration and antithesis: (d) Ringing repetition of sounds; (f) Brevity; (g) Appeal to curiosity is not infrequent; (h) Punning (i) Sentiment of patriotism : (j) The propogandists do not hesitate

(454)  to enter, all unbidden, the inner sanctuary of one's private life; (k) Certain slogans appear to be meaty, the unavoidable conclusions of profound thought; (1) Authoritative note of slogans; (m) Many slogans are strictly class-appeals; (n) The apparent obviousness of meaning is an effective feature; (o) Obscurity of origin, combined with euphoniousness, timeliness, and other features, adds greatly to the strength of the slogan.

Certainly many of these items say something about the characteristics of slogans. In fact all of them may be true as separate items. But it will be readily seen that this enumeration of their features is not based on any consistent psychological principle. Some of the items characterize the eternal structure of the slogans, some the meaning, and a few the propagandist himself. Remembering the above items as useful discrete characterizations of the slogans, we have to go further into their psychology.

Some conclusions obtained in the laboratory investigation of basic psychological phenomena and also some recent results of experimental social psychology will died light on our problem.

Experimentation with stimulus situations has shown that the stimulus field is organized into a definite pattern and that certain aspects stand out, the rest forming the background. If the stimulus field is itself patterned, the experienced pattern is determined by the conditions of the external pattern. If the stimulus field is not itself patterned, we tend to perceive it in some sort of pattern. Subjective rhythm read into the regular clicks of the clocks, or puffs of the locomotive, or the patterned perception of puzzle pictures, or of ambiguous Rorschach figures are examples of the point. Especially in cases where patterning is externally lacking do we tend to experience the situation by reading our own conscious or unconscious inclinations or interpretations into it. To perceive and experience things in some sort of pattern or order seems to be a basic and general psychological tendency.

Patterning is organized around some salient features or outstanding points of reference which are themselves part of the stimulating agents that form a functional unit at a given time. This fact has revealed itself in almost all fields of investigation-sensory phenomena, judgment, perception, memory, affectivity, experience of success or failure, etc.[3]

With the shifts of the reference points there may result a reorganization of the whole pattern or structure. This is especially

(455) true in cases in which the stimulus field lacks intrinsic patterning. Some established attitude, some pressing desire, past acquaintance, or some other sort of preparedness may work in favor of singling this or that feature out of other possible ones.

This tendency to experience an indefinite, unpatterned, unstructured stimulus situation in some form of order has been shown in some recent experimental studies in social psychology. When a group of individuals face an unstable stimulus situation and are asked to report on some indefinite aspect of it, they tend to experience it in terms of a common range and a common reference point within that range, both of which are built up in the course of the group activity: Once the common reference point is established for the group, the individual member persists in adopting the common reference point even when he faces the same stimulus alone on subsequent occasions.[4]

It seems to us that the essential characteristics of the circumstances contributing to the rise and catching quality of the slogans are psychologically similar in essentials in spite of the fact that the experiments referred to above lack the concrete vitality and motivating direction of the actual situations. This is especially true of political slogans. The similarity lies in the fact that new slogans also arise or become effective when the situation people face is unstable, indefinite and demands a short epitomizing expression.

The case of business slogans is fundamentally similar. In business also the persons who are interested in rendering their slogans effective have to launch their slogans on people who are more or less indefinite as to the articles or conveniences offered to them. It is difficult to know beforehand which slogans will catch and thus focus attention on this or that article. Usually the effective slogan is the one that appeals to a particular appetite, need, or other demand with a short-cut, simple expression whose features--such as rhythm, alliteration, punning– make its recurrence or repetition easy.

But none of these features is enough in itself to make a slogan effective. Otherwise it would be comparatively easy to sit down and construct a slogan. In actual practice, some of the best known slogans that make the most effective appeal--because they and not others are the best short-cut expressions of the situation on hand have entirely accidental origin. A business man, Charles Pelham, vice-president of Puller and Smith &, ho., Inc., has recently made one point clear with the histories of some well-known business

(456) slogans, such as "The Nation's Host from Coast to Coast." From the delightful cases he collected the author reaches the conclusion that "if there is any conclusion to be drawn from these stories, it certainly is not that there is an approved way of going about formulating a slogan. Hard work may produce it and may not; a chance remark, a luck- eavesdropping, years of thought, or a moment's inspiration. To base a theory of the technique of inspiration on such material would plainly be stuff and/or nonsense." [5]

What the business man noticed about slogans is also seen by the political observer who does not follow events merely from the irresponsible objectivity of his academic chair. What the business man characterized as the "casual and accidental," a political observer characterized as the "spontaneity" in the inception of the slogans. In our opinion "spontaneity" is preferable because "casual and accidental" smack of indeterminism. A slogan may have been formulated unintentionally or by some business or political propagandist. It catches the public imagination almost spontaneously when it fits in as a short-cut expression summarizing a directed and unsatisfied wish and carrying with it effective qualities of some established stereotypes if they exist.

In other words, slogans catch almost spontaneously when (and not before, because only a few might notice them) they stand out as short-cut characterizations of the direction and temper of the time and situation.

The difficulty in formulating an effective slogan that will catch like wildfire may be attributed to the fact that very few people can hit on a happy combination that expresses the temper of the time best. If this is not hit upon, mere structural qualities such as simplicity and rhythm will not help much. It is because of this that the deliberate propagandist or leader is not always the person who originates slogans. They may originate from below. Before the famous slogans of the World War became effective in America, a political observer shrewdly expressed this fact. In 1917, in an editorial in The Nation the writer called attention to the characteristic of spontaneity with which slogans catch, and concluded: '`We do not know whence the American slogan for the present war will come. It may come from the White House or from the vaudeville stage or from the common life. But it will be set in motion without forethought, it will make its way at first without public notice, and

(457) before we are aware we shall have it."[6] This observation is in essential harmony with the conclusion reached by the business man.

The psychological properties of slogans come into high relief when we take into account the rise and effectiveness of slogans in times of panic, critical situations, or revolutionary moments. Ordinarily the routine of daily life is regulated by more or less well-established norms — i.e., customs, traditions, modes, various kinds of well-implanted social values. Some of them become ossified stereotypes, and the flow of social life and human relationships as regulated by these norms and stereotypes is almost taken for granted.

But in critical times when the existing norms or stereotypes are no longer sufficient to regulate the new conditions, the situation upset by the rise of new and heretofore unaccounted factors and relationships has to be reformulated. The new situation produces its own appropriate norms. For an.', ;-coup co-activity that lasts for any length of time result, in a set of norms that defines the desired ends and taboos of the group. And slogans, especially at the time of crises and tension, become short-cut battle cries of the situation which may be used or abused as magic focal catchwords for intense action and feeling. Thus slogans may serve as crystallization points in the confusion of a crisis which tends to develop into a new regulation of a new order.

The extent of upset may vary--it may affect and reformulate one aspect of group life, or it may affect the whole structure of society. Especially in cases where the whole structure of society is affected, we see masses moving intensely and summarizing their movement with certain sharp slogans. At such times people are not in the mood to read or hear long political speeches or platforms. Slogans and headlines that fit into the temper of the movement are the things that count.

Let us take, for example, two important revolutions from history, the French and the American Revolutions. One of the most important slogans in the world's history is the "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality" of the French Revolution. This revolution started at a time of tyranny and oppression, when the French masses lived under destitute conditions while the privileged minority took pride in being useless in the world of luxury and fantasy of their class. There %%a,, flu longer any connection between economic and social realities and the superstructure of norms and etiquette. The French Revolution "arose front the ever increas-

(458) -ing divorce between reality and law, between institutions and men's way of living, between the letter and the spirit."' When a superstructure of norms is separated too much from the basic realities, sooner or later that superstructure suffers. The objective realities force themselves through the destruction of the degenerating and parasitic superstructure to a new order. When life was becoming unbearable the old traditions and superstitions began to lose their grip on the French masses. Therefore, religious life, an important part of the superstructure, "no longer had any attractions," [8] and "the innovators now won the day." [9]

When again and again the good life promised by virtues of loyalty to values and institutions is not fulfilled, people wake up and challenge them. If the unfortunate conditions of living are intensified by new crises, things move faster and come to the point of explosion. This is what happened during the years just preceding the French Revolution. A few concrete items will give a clearer picture:

"At Abbeville there were 12,000 workmen unemployed, at Lyons, 20,000 and the numbers at other places were in proportion. At the beginning of the winter, which was a very hard one, it was necessary in the large cities to organize workshops supported by charity, especially as the price of bread was constantly rising.' The harvest of 1788 had been much below normal. The shortage of forage had been so great that the farmers had been forced to sacrifice part of their cattle and to leave some of their lands uncultivated, or else sow it without previous manuring. The markets were short of supplies. Not only was bread very dear, but there was a risk that it would run short . . . . The wretched people cast covetous glances upon the well-filled barns in which their lay and ecclesiastical lords stored up the proceeds of their tithes and their rents in kind." [10]

The effect of this situation in individual experience is well expressed in the words that Taine puts into a peasant's mouth:

"I am miserable because they take too much from me. They take too much from me because they do not take enough from the privileged classes. Not only do the privileged classes make me pay in their stead but they levy upon me ecclesiastical and feudal dues. When from an income of a hundred francs, I have given fifty-three anal more to the tax collector, I still have to give fourteen to my seignor and fourteen more for my tithe and out of the eighteen or


nineteen francs I have left, I have yet to satisfy the excise-officer and the salt-tax-farmer. Poor wretch that I am, alone I pay for two governments-the one obsolete, local, which is today remote, useless, inconvenient, humiliating, and makes itself felt through its restraints, its injustices, its tares; the other new, centralized, ubiquitous, which alone takes charge of every- service, has enormous needs and pounces upon my weal: shoulders with all its enormous weight." [11]

This is the time when the individual, and many others like himself, is open to new possibilities. In fact, people feel the need to hold on to something new; the whole of life has to be reformulated. Therefore,

"the rising was directed not only against those who were speculating in foodstuffs, against the old system of taxation, against internal tolls, and against feudalism, but against all those who exploit the populace and live upon its substance. It was closely connected with the political agitation. At Nantes the crowd besieged the Hotel de Ville with cries of Vive la Liberté.' " [12]

In this atmosphere of unrest, confusion, and ferment, the slogan "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" emerged as a magic torchlight which crystallized the aspiration of the masses in a shortcut way.

Now let us turn to the American Revolution and look at the conditions from which some of its well-known slogans emerged.

Long before the outbreak of the American Revolution and especially during the ten years preceding it, commercial legislation in the colonies was in a state of anarchy. The chronic confusion that accompanied the shifting conditions under which "American business and agricultural enterprise was growing, swelling, and beating against the frontiers of English imperial control," [13] was augmented by a business depression following the war of 1763, and Grenville's program for relieving English taxpayers with American taxes.

"In the swift reaction that followed, inflated prices collapsed, business languished, workmen in the towns were thrown out of employment, farmers and planters, burdened by falling prices, found the difficulties of securing specie steadily growing.


"By the new imperial program, the evils of the depression were aggravated." [14]

"No Taxation Without Representation" was the slogan that rallied the colonists up and down the seaboard in overt protest: a boycott of English goods, riots in the large cities, tarring and feathering of tax collectors, the destruction of imported goods and royal officials' property.

Once the revolution broke out, new slogans arose. Resolving the crisis with rebellion and independence came so swiftly that many colonists who were firmly for "No Taxation `Without Representation" did not accept this method. A number of slogans evolved to sanction the course that had been taken; for example, "Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God."

More serious than the doubts of those who hesitated to defy authority was the want of unity among the thirteen colonies, a lack leading to uncertainty on the battle field and disorganization in civil life. Even the indefatigable cheer-leader for the revolution, Thomas Paine, said

"When I look back on the gloomy days of last winter and see America suspended by a thread, I feel a triumph of joy at the recollection of her delivery and a reverence for the characters which sNatched her from destruction." [15]

There was no administrative machinery ready-made to coördinate activities. "Exactly the opposite was true; they had to create everything national out of a void-a government, a treasury, an army, even a bookkeeping system, and agencies for buying supplies." [16]

To make matters worse, the revolutionaries themselves within each state were divided into opposing factions that nullified each other's work and sometimes came to blows. The merchants and property owners were intent upon overthrowing the feudal mercantilism of England, while the mechanics, small farmers and laborers were anxious to utilize the upheaval to abolish the remnants of feudalism within the indigenous social structure.

Unity of action against the external foe could alone meet the situation, and slogans to that effect were effective and widely circulated: "United We Stand, Divided We Fall''; and "If we Don't Hang Together, We'll All Hang Separately."

Anybody why reads John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World and goes through [lie misery and starvation depicted there,

(461) can easily understand why such slogans as "All Power to the Soviets" and "Peace, Bread and Land" became signals that stood out in the midst of destruction and wretchedness as symbols of a new life.

We have tried to give a psychological characterization of the rise and effectiveness of slogans. Our chief point is that slogans are short-cut expressions arising in confused and critical situations. This does not mean that. these short-cuts necessarily express the true and objective solution of the problems they are facing. We have not even implied this. At critical times, such as ours, demagogues may arise and catch the temper of the times, uttering slogans which may move millions of people temporarily. The analysis of actual forces and the evaluation of the correctness of the solutions offered lie outside the limits of our discussion. But it may be safe to say that the more correctly and the more objectively a set of slogans expresses the underlying forces in a critical situation, the more vital and lasting they will prove to be. Slogans of liberty and equality at times of tyranny and oppression, and of peace and bread at tinges of insecurity and war, scarcity and starvation, will keep on moving the masses as magic torches, since they express a deprivation and tension that shakes the very depths of human life.


  1. These fascist slogans are taken from a. .T. Zurcher, "State Propaganda in Italy" in Propaganda and Dictatorship, Edited by H. L. Childs, Princeton University Press, 1936, 48.
  2. Lumley, F. E., Slogans as a means of social control. American Sociological Society, Papers and Proceedings of Annual Meeting, 1921, 16, 1934.
  3. For a concise survey of factual evidence see Sherif, M., Psychology of social norms, especially Chapter III. "The Frame of Reference in Psychological Phenomena," New York: Harper, 1936, 26-46.
  4. See Sherif, M., A study of some social factors in perception, Arch. of Psychol., 1935, No. 187.
  5. Charles Pelham, Where slogans come from, Printers' Ink, December 12:, 1935, 100-109.
  6. Editorial, Nation, June 21, 1917, 728.
  7. Mathies, Albert, The French Revolution, New York: Knopf, 1929, 1.
  8. Ibid., 13.
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. Ibid., 34.
  11. Gottschalk, L. R., The era of the French Revolution, 1715-1815, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1929, 39.
  12. Ibid., 25.
  13. Beard, C. A. and M. R., The rise of American civilization, New York: Macmillan, 1930, I, 201.
  14. Ibid.. 211.  
  15. Paine, Thomas, The crisis, New York: D.M.. Bennett, 1877, No. V, 63.
  16.  Beard, C. A. and M. R., op. cit., 235.

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