Why do ideas spread?

What’s a good idea?

Sliced bread — pretty solid.

Cat Tunnel sofa — uh, okay.

The Segway — seemed good, but it flopped. So, why is it that some ideas capture people’s attention and inspire a movement, where others fall flat?

Rally Cries

I asked this question to my mentor, Andrew Davis, and he suggested that I start my search with rallying cries, as they are remembered specifically because they have inspired action. A rallying cry is:

Something such as a word or phrase, an event, or a belief which encourages people to unite and to act in support of a particular group or idea. – CollinsDictionary

Sounds right.

But what is it? What were tangible examples? Even Google seemed a little confused about what one was, and returned results that were close synonyms; Battle Cries, Tag Lines, Campaign Slogans, Catch Phrases, Sport’s Chants, etc.

Of course, these all inspire people to action. To make a purchase, to take a stance, to take some action, cast a vote. But how?

Political Slogans

Given the recent election, this seemed like an easy place to start. Wikipedia lists over 120 of the most notable political slogans from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. Included were famous examples like; Come and Take It, Remember the Alamo, Make Love not War, and We Are the 99%. 

Some of those sound like battle cries to me… but whatever.

To this list, I added another 20 slogans — ones that I remembered from my own experience (Yes We Can, I’m With Her, Make America Great Again, to name a few). I ran an analysis to see, on a basic level, what did these slogans have in common?

It turns out, a majority (53%) of political slogans are comprised of only 3 or 4 words.

And those words are also pretty short. The average slogan was 24.352 characters long. 64% were under 25-characters long.

Okay, so slogans we remember are short. Take a second and consider what they represent; a candidate’s entire campaign stance and their moral character? Or for a battle cry; a reason justifiable enough to risk your life? Suddenly these seem really short.

Brand Taglines

Brand taglines are also designed to be memorable and inspire action. Granted, the action is usually just a purchase, but would the above hypotheses hold true? I took the same approach, using lists to source 100 of the “most memorable” brand taglines. Some examples were; Just do it (Nike), Challenge Everything (EA), and Good to the Last Drop (Maxwell House). I ran the same analysis, looking for word counts and character counts.

Okay, so brand taglines are a little longer, favoring 4 or 5 words in length.

But the character count is pretty similar. This made me look at the kind of words being used in both cases. They were simple. Common words. Something that everyone would understand and be able to repeat — words that were already in the listener’s vocabulary (and sometimes dialect).

Anyone who has read about viral marketing can explain why this is so important. You want the message to continue without losing its meaning.

Why does short matter?

Okay, so it seems like being short matters. But why?

Consider what we, today, call “Viral Marketing.” It’s when an idea spreads because the product user or content consumer shares the message with their network. This definition sounds pretty similar to a more familiar, age-old, marketing term: Word-of-Mouth marketing.

For Word-of-Mouth to work, the message must be:

  1. Understood
  2. Repeatable
  3. Understood on repetition without decay

Now we see why being short is a critical component of a well-sold idea. Despite how complex a political candidate might be, they have managed to boil an idea (or feeling) down to its 3-word essence. In fact, that makes it harder to argue with. A complicated position or opinion can be dismantled. The concise nature of effective slogans allows you to fill in the gaps and create an interpretation that resonates with you.

Consider the less attractive version:

“You should really close the laptop, get off the sofa, and do something physical so that you don’t die of heart failure by your 40’s” v.s. “Just do it.”


“I’d rather die than suffer under the burden of these absurd taxes that are benefiting people who are already super freaking rich.” v.s. “Liberty or Death.”

My definition of liberty might not be congruent with yours, but who doesn’t want to strive for more liberty? Especially when there is a mass sentiment of oppression in society. What I need to “just do” might be different from yours, but we can all relate to the feeling of procrastination and needing to commit.

What’s more is that the subject in these rally cries is implied, as if you are saying it. Only five of the political slogans contain the word “You,” zero contain the word “I,” and six of the brand taglines contain some variant of you (Melts in your mouth, not in your hand).

This brings us to our next commonality of rally cries — they promise a better tomorrow.

A Better Tomorrow

Effective rally cries, taglines, or slogans are about what you will accomplish. Less effective ones are about what a product or person will do for you. Consider the lack of “I” or “You” in the most memorable phrases from history. The subject is an implied you — this is your rally cry and you are the one uttering the phrase.

This better tomorrow is a direct result of your action.

Consider these phrases:

  • Think Different – Who is thinking differently? You. What is the outcome? Smarter solutions. Innovation.
  • Stay the Course – Who is staying the course? You. What is the outcome? A victory.
  • Never Forget – Who? You. What is the outcome? Avoiding a repeat of the horrific acts of 9/11 or WWII or other genocides.

But what about phrases like Bread and Roses? Short and lacking the subject. Those sound like positive things — but would it cause you to join a riot?

Bread and Roses

Scene from the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike

Confession time: I had to look up a majority of political phrases. I could see how they might be inspiring, but I had no clue what they meant. Bread and Roses came from a poem but was cited in a speech given by Rose Schneiderman.

The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.

The phrase meant that workers needed quality pay and better working conditions. In the textile mills of Lawrence in 1912, the context was right to understand what this rallying cry meant. The workers went on strike.

Ooh Rah is another example. You’re probably familiar with it, but unless you are in the Marines it might not carry the same context. Being concise and short allows the listener to create the meaning, but the listener must be in the same context for the correct meaning to be applied.

Cultural context matters.

The Carrier

Have you ever had an idea and shared it at a meeting for it to fall on deaf ears, then later the same idea comes from the CEO and everyone lauds him?

Yea… the carrier matters, but it depends on the cause. The CEO couldn’t lead a rallying cry for fair pay — they just aren’t credible.

In fact, one of the most recognizable cries of Black Power was first documented in 1954, but it wouldn’t come to prominence until it was used by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in 1966. It had to be him (carrier), at the March Against Fear after the shooting of James Meredith (context.)

Short phrase with a promise of a better tomorrow that is only achievable if you take action.

That’s the recipe for an ignition of an idea.

Are Good Ideas just Well Sold?

Kinda. What is certain is that a good idea sold poorly goes nowhere. A bad idea… well… this sums it up for me.

“When good ideas get a bad reputation, they do what companies do, go underground and then come back with a new name.” – Daniel Gilbert

Another example is Freedom and Bread. It sounds like a great idea — who doesn’t like freedom, and sliced bread is what all ideas are compared to. That is, until you realize that this was the political slogan of Hitler.

Your Turn

What are your thoughts? Do you have a favorite rallying cry? Let me know how it stacks up in the comments. Next time, we’ll explore memes — the virus of the mind.


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