“If you want to get ahead, get a hat.” So announced the hatters of Luton and elsewhere some years ago. I put my failure to gain a place among the country’s leading figures down to foolishly ignoring that advice. As a schoolboy I wore a cap. Briefly in my teens I owned a trilby until it blew off into a river. As a reluctant army conscript I was obliged to partially cover my cranium with a forage cap. But for the majority of my life my locks have been exposed to the elements; either blowing in the breeze or channelling rivulets of rainwater down my face, dependent upon the prevailing weather conditions. Consequently, so manufacturers of head-gear would have me believe, I am doomed to follow at the rear, rather than proudly marching in the vanguard.
However, my subject this morning is not head-covering, but slogans, catch-phrases, sound-bites and advertising jingles. To gain power and influence in a chosen field you not only need a hat, you need a snappy, memorable phrase. Politicians understand that and so expend much time, effort, and consultancy fees, devising them. “You never had it so good”, Harold Macmillan informed us. “Labour isn’t working,” Margaret Thatcher bemoaned. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” Mr. Blair promised. It was a politician who inserted “double-whammy” into everyday language. So it goes on. The short, sharp phrase which sticks in the mind is an essential precursor to gaining success in an election.
But the search for a pithy phrase is not confined to politicians. Unsure what else to say, the school-teacher writes ambiguously on the school report, John, or Jane as the case might be, continues to try (the final word ‘everybody’ is omitted). Peter has made some progress, Phillipa is showing some promise, (the exact extent of the progress or promise is not specified). I am sure Joanne’s new teacher will find much to challenge her. Meantime Gregory has made an impression on his class-mates throughout the past year (with his fists and boots, no doubt)..
Comedians have long recognised that the road to fame is best trodden accompanied by a recognised catch-phrase. Older members will recall that Stainless Stephen always enquired of his mother if she could hear him, Tommy Handley’s Mrs. Mopp announced her entrance by asking, “Can I do you now, sir?”. More recently Captain Mainwearing referred to Private Pike as “Stupid boy”, and the department store assistant solicitously asks if you are being served.
The history of marketing branded goods abounds with slogans and one-liners. Every time I see a bottle of bovril I think of the posters on the hoardings of my boyhood showing a man in his pyjamas (today it would be a nubile young lady in a bikini) sitting astride a large bottle of bovril in the middle of the ocean, announcing that “Bovril prevents that sinking feeling.” “Drinka pinta milka day”, was the prescription from the old Milk Marketing Board. Not only the Irish have been assured that Guinness is good for you. I refrain from repeating any of the current marketing slogans lest members of the congregation accuse me of being in the pay of one of the multi-nationals.
A particular rich source of eminently memorable phrases, slogans you might call them, is to be found on the pages of the gospels. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s” is the concentrated essence of a philosophy which could occupy a tome hundreds of pages thick. There is a recognition that many of us, probably most of us, have no intention of withdrawing into monastic seclusion, but prefer to live a social life, working alongside others. Mostly we choose our curtains, paint our houses, buy our tooth-paste, select our groceries, hopefully with some regard to any ethical implications as we make our decisions, but, to be honest, largely with convenience and price in mind. The Caesars who devise those clever TV advertisements ensure we render unto them that they may earn their fat salaries.
But true living requires more than homage at a materialist altar. There are values, ethics, obligations which are not purely materialistic. Worship, compassion, service to others, awe, humility and the rest are not Caesar’s values. So in a pithy statement Jesus summed up a whole philosophy of how life should be lived. Whilst living an everyday existence and paying our dues and taxes, there are other duties required of us. They are to be found in a spiritual kingdom.
There is a whole raft of aphorisms in the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke about inconsistency of standards according to whether they apply to one’s own behaviour, or that of others. Separating wheat from tares, or sheep from goats, comes to mind, or the arresting sentence, “Judge not that you be not judged”. Eyes whose vision is impaired by mote or beam encapsulates in a few words wisdom of the ages, and Jesus gave in a ringing sentence a judgement that a High Court Judge might have taken hours to pronounce, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And what of that seven word phrase which for many of us expresses what a Christian life should be about. “Love God, love your neighbour as yourself.” Does not that say it all?
The modern marketing director or advertising executive talks of packaging the product. Part of that is about giving what he or she regards as essential information succinctly in easily memorised words. Jingles and slogans are a tool used in this technique. But hundreds of years ago in a simple agrarian land an itinerant preacher with his followers instinctively understood the value of this technique. To mention simply the good Samaritan is to portray a message of caring and compassion. A doctrine of forgiveness lies within the words, the Prodigal Son.
I forget where the passage in the Old Testament is to be found, but somewhere is a reference to the small leather box fastened to the forehead of a devout Jew and to a cylindrical container fixed to the door-posts of the house. They contained just a few words taken from the commandments. They reminded the owner of his obligation to love God and honour his elders and ancestors. Though the ancient Jewish code covered every aspect of life and laid down in considerable detail how the believer’s life should be conducted the core of the message was reduced to the central message, honour both your God and your family.
So the slogan should not be despised because it reduces a message to a few words. It is a quick and convenient way of enabling recognition or of reminding us of a wider message. The comedian’s catch-phrase is his signature tune which he hopes we will welcome. The successful commodity jingle will bring the item to mind, and convince us of its excellence. The religious adage will guide us in life’s important decisions.
But the catch-phrase in itself is but a start, an aide memoire. The advertisement may tell me that this particular washing powder washes whiter than white, but if experience shows that soiled items remain grey, then that particular slogan is discredited. The comedian whose entertainment value is poor will not suddenly achieve success through a catch-phrase. Printing “Love God, love your neighbour” on my T-shirt won’t mean anything unless those values become part of the tapestry of my life.
As I have pointed out, the sound-bite, easily remembered, is not a new phenomena. It goes back generations, over decades and centuries, What is new, or if not new certainly more common, is the tendency to think a sound-bite, a memorable phrase, call it what you will, can stand alone. To recall another phrase from the gospels, Jesus spoke of a house built upon a rock. A clever pun on words, an easily recalled jingle, will be meaningless unless it chrysalises a truth. Should there be no rock on which its foundations rests, the saying preaches of dross, not wisdom.. The catchy phrase should be a summary of, not a substitute for a product, a policy, a philosophy.
It was an American politician, I forget who, speaking of an opponent for office, and drawing attention to what he regarded as windy words belying substance, used the words, “Yes, but where’s the beef.”
All of us know how easy it is to repeat sincerely the tenets of faith, and then to fudge them, or forget them in the course of daily life. It is one thing to say we must forgive those who trespass against us, it is quite another to put that noble aim into practice. Love of neighbour is a central plank of Christian belief, but applying it in real situations can be, to put it mildly, at times sorely trying. And so it goes for many of the other articles of faith.
We use a descriptive expression about speeches which are not backed by behaviour. We call it “paying lip service”. Politicians have in recent years gained a reputation among many of the electorate for insincerity, and even hypocrisy. My observation is not concerned with whether or not that is deserved. But one reason given for this widespread belief is the use of catchy sound-bites which too often have provoked the question, “But where is the beef?”
I have pointed out that Jesus frequently used the arresting short phrase, but it is worth reflecting that they would not have lasted 2,000 years if there was no substance behind them. The phrase was about the reality, not a glib statement hiding indifference.
The catch-word has been long around, and is here to stay. Nothing to be regretted about that, as long as it summarises accurately a reality, and does not hide a vacuum.
I don’t think it right to call it a catch-phrase, but I end my ramblings with that familiar summary word familiar to all church-goers, which means “So be it”. Amen
C.J. Rosling 23 August 2002
Hucklow 25 August 2002
Upper Chapel 27 October 2002