Some years ago I did some consulting for a regional office of the American Cancer Society, which raises money for cancer research and education. The society’s logo, then as now, was a stylized caduceus—a short winged rod entwined by two serpents—that in modern times has been appropriated as a symbol of the medical profession. The caduceus was originally associated with Hermes, the Greek god of messengers, thieves, travelers, and border crossings—but not of medicine. The traditional medical symbol in ancient times was the rod of Asclepius: a staff entwined by a single serpent. Asclepius, a son of Apollo, was associated with medicine and healing.
Someone at the American Cancer Society evidently looked at the caduceus and saw not a rod or a staff but a weapon—a sword, to be specific. And from that mistaken observation, based on a mistaken conflation of two Greek symbols, came the national organization’s slogan: “There’s Nothing Mightier Than the Sword.”
My consulting work for the society had nothing to do with slogan development, but I couldn’t help myself. That slogan really, really bothered me.
I remember a conversation—perplexed on my end, earnest on the client’s end—about the logic of this phrase. The pen! I had to restrain myself from shouting. The pen is mightier than the sword!* “No, no,” the client said soothingly. “The sword really is the mightiest!”
Really? Besides the pen, I can think of several things that are mightier than the sword: the flamethrower, the catapult, the poison gas, the rocket grenade, and the thermonuclear device. Just for starters.
And, come to think, cancer itself often proves to be mightier than the sword, if by “sword” you mean “scalpel” and if by “cancer” you mean “war.”
Well, that was then. My consulting work went smoothly enough. Years passed. And now I see that the ACS has a different slogan: “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays.” A little confusing out of context, and probably disappointing to your local six-year-old, but definitely a step up from that mighty sword.
For my part, I’m working now with a different medical organization on naming and slogan development, so I’ve been thinking once again about the challenges of nonprofit branding. In a stroke of timely good fortune, last weekend I discovered Nancy E. Schwartz’s nonprofit-marketing blog, Getting Attention, which conducts an annual Nonprofit Tagline Awards contest. (Hat tip to my Twitter pal The Slogan Shop.) You can read about the 2009 winners here and download the free 121-page report about them here. And go here to vote for the most effective slogans of 2010.
The slogans on this year’s ballot have been winnowed down from more than 2,700 entrants. About the original field, Nancy Schwartz writes:
I have to tell you that although some of the taglines entered work well (roughly 30%), most do not. The reasons why are varied, from “they make no sense” to “they make sense, but don’t make an impact.” Whatever the reason, the end result is a highly used message that’s not doing its job for your organization.
Only a 30 percent success rate? Surely we can do better. In her 2009 report, Schwartz offers 10 “have-tos” for creating powerful taglines. They include “Must convey your nonprofit’s or program’s impact or value,” “Must be authentic,” “Must be broadly and easily accessible and memorable, avoiding jargon and acronyms,” and “Must be specific to your organization, not easily used by another nonprofit reaching out to the same audiences.” That last point is especially significant: Too many of this year’s entrants (yes, even the finalists) are interchangeable.
On the bright side, only one tagline finalist includes the word “passion.” An encouraging sign!
About the title of this post: “Saving the X, One Y at a Time” is a slogan snowclone, or sloganclone. Read more about this slogan formula and others in my 2007 post, “Snowclones with a Twist.”
* “The pen is mightier than the sword” was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian novelist who is also famous for the opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” There’s an annual bad-writing contest named in honor of Bulwer-Lytton.
I didn't have problems with the "Official Sponsor of Birthdays" slogan until it appeared at the top of the ACS page for memorial donations. There I was, giving money in memory of someone who had just died of cancer, and it felt like a slap in the face. "We're the official sponsor of birthdays... just not hers."
Posted by: Alisa | September 07, 2010 at 10:45 AM
Oh Ms. Fritinancy, how my head and heart ached with empathy when I read about your conversation with your former American Cancer Society client. Having been on the head-banging end of similar conversations, I commend your patience.
Posted by: Michele Hush | September 07, 2010 at 10:49 AM
Nancy, Thanks so much for sharing your experience with the ACS tagline creation, spreading the word on the Tagline Awards program!
Posted by: Nancy Schwartz | September 07, 2010 at 11:30 AM
Nancy, I know you're not a fan of "Mad Men," but the Aug. 29 episode, "Waldorf Stories," featured a sloganclone. Don and Peggy are interviewing an aspiring copywriter whose portfolio consists of mocked-up ads with the sloganclone, "The Cure for the Common X." They mock his hackneyed work, but later a drunk Don appropriates the sloganclone for their client Life Cereal, which he gives the tagline, "The Cure for the Common Breakfast."
Posted by: Ben Zimmer | September 08, 2010 at 04:31 AM
Ben: You're right, I don't watch "Mad Men," but I did read about that episode. BrandFreak, the BrandWeek blog, traced the history of "Cure for the Common X," which has been used by Nissan, Chrysler, and Taco Bell, among other advertisers. http://bit.ly/b6taNq
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | September 08, 2010 at 08:02 AM