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‘Stay alert’: genius or meaningless?

Published May 14, 2020 – By Martin MacConnol


So, where did you stand on the “Stay Alert” debate? When it was unveiled at the start of the week, did you see it as meaningless, crass verbiage, or subtly nuanced nudge messaging?

With the benefit of time, I tend to the latter point of view. Sure, when I first read it, I could say it in a BoJo accent and imagine he came up with it in the bath. But having worked at Wardour for most of my adult life I know that was not likely to have been the case.

In fact, for people who don’t work in comms and marketing the energy that goes into creating a slogan can seem bewildering. The good ones just look so obvious. But obvious takes effort. And getting it right for a brand can be the difference between life and death – and in the case of Covid-19, literally life and death for people in the UK. So, I suspect a lot of soul searching went into coming up with something that would get people engaged.

Having lived with it for a few days now, I think there are a couple of clever things about it. The first is the way it worked as a sleight of hand. On the day when we were being told that normal life was going to be postponed for a lot longer, most of the commentary ended up being about the wording of the message, not the message itself. Everyone was complaining about how woolly the slogan was compared to “Stay Home”. One PR consultant friend told me it was a classic comms piece of misdirection. It got lots of people safely angry about something the government could happily live with.

But there is something more important going on with this slogan than simply giving people a distracting bone to gnaw on. The original “Stay Home” slogan was wonderfully clear. But at that time, the objective was wonderfully clear too: stop an unacceptable number of people dying and don’t overwhelm the NHS. Staying at home was the only way to do it.

But now the message is more confusing: staying at home is good to stop the spread of the disease but bad for overall death rates. Because if we just stay at home more people will die of preventable illnesses going untreated, domestic abuse and a failing economy.

And this is where the new slogan is clever. “Stay Home” was a topdown, command and control instruction from government. It allowed for no discretion or judgement. It was binary – either you were at home or you were not.

We live in less clear, dare I say ‘woolier’ times. The government would like us to be active, but ideally only if the economy benefits. At the same time it doesn’t want to kill morale by saying you can only go out for work… But then we can’t have a free for all of everyone doing exactly what they want socially… Lots of shades of grey to deal with.

“Stay Alert” may not be as stirring as “Stay Home” but it is right in such a landscape. It moves responsibility for the solution to coronavirus away from a government order and places it instead on to our shoulders as individuals. It gives us discretion to do more but asks us to be awake to the implications. It makes you think, and whether you love it or loathe it, that’s a good thing for a slogan to deliver.

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