Police slogans on trial

by Tom Albrighton 14 January 2011 Copywriting reviews

A few days ago, the Guardian published this article, in which the Plain English Campaign (PEC) accuses UK police forces of adopting ‘pointless’ slogans, criticising them on a number of fronts.

First, the PEC points out that commissioning and deploying these slogans uses precious resources, which could be used for ‘real work’ rather than marketing.

Evening all

This is true, but every organisation should be allowed to spend within reason to build its reputation. In policing specifically, one justification for this is that citizens want to feel that their local force is reliable, solid and professional, and public image plays a part in confidence.

Regional pride is important too. If other forces seem superior, people might feel that they live in a backwater. This can have economic as well as emotional effects.

A stronger criticism is that the police are providing a public service and are, in effect, a monopoly. ‘Customers’ don’t have any choice about who they report a burglary to, for example; we don’t shop around for law enforcement.

However, involving the police is often an option rather than a necessity. People’s perceptions will affect whether they approach the police, and how much they’re willing to help them with their work.

The PEC’s criticism focuses on external perceptions. But internal marketing is important too. In theory, slogans can help to communicate and reinforce a shared purpose within an organisation.

So police marketing can be justiied. But the actual marketing has to be up to the job. So let’s take a few police slogans down to Interview Room 1 and give them the third degree.


Total policing

The PEC accuse some slogans of being ‘meaningless’, citing this as an example. But lack of meaning isn’t necessarily a problem unless it makes the slogan ineffective. ‘Just Do It’ doesn’t carry a lot of concrete meaning, but it works for Nike. However, although we are nominally in the B2C realm, we’re a long way from selection goods like sportswear here.

The real problems here are jargon and egotism. Insofar as it has meaning, this slogan expresses what the force does, not the benefits customers get. And while the phrase may have some meaning in police circles, it surely means very little to citizens.

Avon & Somerset

Working Together to Make the Communities of Avon & Somerset Feel Safe and Be Safe

I pity the designer who has to fit this on anything smaller than a Transit. At fifteen words, it’s quite simply far too long.

‘Making Avon & Somerset Safe’ hits the same buttons while saving the force 66% in ink costs. (The Met opts for the similar, though still flabby, ‘Working Together For A Safer London’.)

‘Working together’ and ‘communities’ are patronising public-sector buzzwords that, in my view, won’t connect with real people.

Foregrounding the distinction between feeling safe and actually being safe was probably a mistake too – I’m guessing most bobbies on the beat don’t want to be seen as window-dressing to reassure worried grannies.

Cambridgeshire, Essex

Creating a Safer Cambridgeshire

Taking a Lead in Making Essex Safer

Laudable sentiments here, if a little dull. I never like the public sector habit of using gerunds (‘ing’ words like ‘creating’ and ‘taking’) in headlines, to form a non-finite clause where the verb has no subject. Why not just say ‘We Make Essex Safer’? Perhaps because it sounds too directly accountable?


Protecting and Serving the People of Kent

Kent appropriate the LAPD’s classic ‘To Protect And Serve’, diluting it with the same public-sector gerund as Cambs and Essex. However, I’m not against it just because it’s unoriginal – and the use of ‘serving’ and ‘people’ are nice touches, bringing at least some sense of the customer to the tagline.


Our Priority is You

My local force clearly want to emphasise their caring, feminine side. Unfortunately, they’ve ended up with something so generic that it could be used by almost any service provider in any sector – a trap I documented in detail in my post on company taglines. No promise of value is made, no distinctive attribute communicated. And, as with other forces’ slogans, the sense is actually quite self-centred, not customer-focused.

The force is also (in my view) stretching credibility a bit too far, risking a disconnect between marketing content and the observable reality of policing. Policemen aren’t cuddly. But who wants them to be?

Closing remarks

All in all, the PEC’s criticism seems fair. For some reason, the police seem unwilling to use language to project the brand values we’d all like them to have – strength, honour, determination. There’s no UK slogan to match the NYPD’s ‘Fidelis ad Mortem’ (‘Faithful Unto Death’) – melodramatic maybe, but memorable for sure.

Such is the pervasive influence of 60s- and 70s-vintage liberalism on public-sector language. Everything has to be soft and yielding. But in the case of the police, I don’t think that’s what people want to hear.

The PEC allude to people being ‘paid to create these slogans’, implying the involvement of external creatives (who are, as we all know, ludicrously overpaid). But to my mind, these slogans have a strong flavour of writing by internal committee. Perhaps if the fuzz involved professional copywriters, they’d have slogans that were a bit more snappy, outward-looking and memorable.

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