The power of language: revisiting the Brexit bus

Patrick Pilkington
Patrick Pilkington

Our current era of politics has shown us the power language has to persuade the public. We look at the persuasive strategies behind one of the most impactful slogans in recent history.

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As marketers, we at Miramar are used to thinking about persuasive language in terms of campaign copy and content that targets B2B audiences. But we like to keep track of how language influences audiences beyond the world of B2B marketing too.

Let’s take a look at one of the most impactful political slogans of recent times and explore how its message was able to reach – and influence – an audience. What can a powerful slogan teach us about using language to persuade?

The words that clinched Brexit

The Brexit referendum has been one of the most significant events in British politics this century. At the heart of the referendum’s outcome was the use of language to appeal to and influence the public. Entire books have been devoted to exploring how language helped sway the referendum result. For this reason, we’re going to take a closer look at one of the more prominent uses of language that emerged during the Brexit campaign.

“We send the EU £350 million a week

let’s fund our NHS instead.”

You probably recognise this slogan. Emblazoned on the side of a bus, it made its way up and down the country as part of Boris Johnson’s efforts for the Vote Leave campaign. Although it was made up of only two sentences, this slogan proved crucial to the referendum result. Dominic Cummings, then the campaign director of Vote Leave, has stated his belief that Leave would not have won the EU referendum without the NHS claim. Despite the fact that the claim was subsequently challenged, a study last year found that 42% of the public still believes it.

£350 million? The psychology of numbers

Why did this claim prove so effective? Central to its persuasive power is the inclusion of a figure: “£350 million”. Psychologically, humans are more likely to view figures as accurate, regardless of whether there’s any real evidence to support them, because they imply an objective system of measurement. In short, claims that include figures seem less likely to have been made up.

The specific wording of the “£350 million” figure in the slogan is also important. Numbers take up less space than words that convey the same value. Given that slogans need to be as succinct as possible to reach their audience (especially when they’re being read from the side of a bus!), the difference between “£350 million” and “350 million pounds” is important. Our brain registers the former more quickly than the latter, even though they convey exactly the same information.

Making Leave seem simple

The point above brings us to the overall simplicity of the Brexit bus message. Inarguably easy to read, the slogan consists of 13 words, none longer than two syllables. When tested using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score, one of the most widely used measures of readability, it receives an ease grade of 102.6 – meaning it can be easily understood by most 6–7 year olds. It may seem like a common-sense point, but it is fundamental that a message designed to reach the broadest audience possible be as readable as possible.

Of course, the power of the slogan goes beyond its readability. In only 13 words, it incorporates a number of persuasive writing strategies. One of these is its use of plural first-person pronouns like “we” and “our”. Pronouns like these appeal to the reader by including them in the statement being made, creating a shared sense of community. Notice how these pronouns are not used to refer to “the EU”. The language used in the slogan constructs a sense of us vs. them to pit the UK/reader against the EU.

The slogan maintains this us vs. them structure by dividing the messaging through its two sentences:

- “We send the EU £350 million a week” - This first sentence is all about what is taken by them/“the EU”.

- “let’s fund our NHS instead” – The second sentence is about what we could have “instead” by leaving the EU.

This division reinforces the slogan’s head-to-head positioning of the UK/EU relationship and imagines a situation that is made up of only two options: continue to give money to the EU, or “fund our NHS instead”. Much of the subsequent response to the bus showed us that the real relationship between EU membership and NHS funding was not as straightforward. But part of the appeal of the slogan was that it presented a simple choice to be made between one undesirable option and another desirable one. The tactics used to convey this went as far as making the second sentence shorter so that the suggestion it makes seems even simpler and more sensible.

The Brexit bus slogan appealed to a very clear set of ideas among a great deal of the public: that the UK needed to “take back control”; that the UK was wasting money that could be spent on its own public services; that the EU was a far-off institution with no real impact on the UK’s public services. The slogan’s claim regarding NHS funding may not have stood up to close scrutiny from a standpoint of accuracy, but it successfully encapsulated the feelings of a large part of the voting population. The care with which the slogan was assembled went beyond copy and into design, too – the inclusion of the NHS logo on the bus was another way of using a familiar object with emotional impact to sway the audience.

What language lessons have we learnt?

What can we as marketers learn from the Brexit bus slogan? It shows us the impact that simple, clear and readable messaging can have on an audience. It reminds us of how appealing to readers’ feelings and using effective engagement strategies in our copy can have a strong psychological influence on that audience. And it demonstrates the power of numbers alongside our use of words to persuade.   

No matter which side of the Brexit debate you find yourself on, it’s impossible to deny the persuasiveness and effective messaging of the Leave campaign’s NHS slogan.

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