Careful phrasing can lead people to support particular policies, invest in particular companies or even back foreign wars. What is the PM trying to achieve with his latest slogan?by Simon Lancaster / January 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
In his New Year blog asking for “weirdos and misfits” to work in No 10, Dominic Cummings issued a call for communications professionals familiar with Robert Cialdini’s work on the psychology of persuasion. One of the first slogans he might get them looking at is “levelling up,” the new term for tackling regional disparities. It has appeared in every major speech by the prime minister since he took office but no one knows exactly what it means.
This is unusual for a prime minister and government whose metaphors are usually crystal clear, designed with high precision to strike deep in the national consciousness. Take the imagery deployed in the recent election campaign. Did you notice how often we saw videos of Boris with food during the election? We saw him in a baker’s, a cake shop, a crisp factory, a pie factory, in a kitchen making tea and scoffing jam scones. When we see images of food, our hunger neurons are inescapably activated. This made his offer of an “oven-ready deal” almost irresistible. It’s priming, or what Cialdini calls “pre-suasion.” You create a problem, then offer up the solution. Or, as Bruce Robinson put it in How to Get Ahead in Advertising, you throw a brick through someone’s window, then knock on the door to sell them a burglar alarm.
“Oven ready” is easy to visualise. “Levelling up” is less clear. What is the underlying imagery here? I think there are three possible contenders.
First is water. The Centre for Policy Studies published a report last summer called “A Rising Tide: Levelling Up Left Behind Britain.” The authors said the aim of this report was to put more “flesh on the bones” of the new prime ministerial slogan. By describing it as a rising tide, they had in mind water levels, invoking John F Kennedy’s “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats”—the idea that when a country gets richer, everyone gains. A rising tide is instantly visual and accessible: we conceptualise money as water anyway, talking about credit flows, liquidity, flotations, bail outs, credit droughts and so on. And a rising tide is also the perfect antidote to trickle-down economics, a theory which Johnson explicitly rejected in one of his early pitches for the Tory leadership. Compare…