What makes a Presidential campaign slogan effective? This is the question that has been on the Democrat’s minds since they first heard Joe Biden’s new slogan, “No Malarkey!” Many ask this question in a positive light because they like Biden’s slogan. But for others, the question has a darker undertone because they know the truth, that Biden’s new slogan is not very good, and they worry that it will cost the Democrats the 2020 election. A good campaign slogan has the power to define the image that voters have in their minds of a candidate when they go to the polls. A bad one has the power to damage a candidacy beyond repair. To discover whether or not Biden’s “No Malarky!” is a good slogan or not, let’s analyze it a bit. Warning: the results are mixed at best.
So again, what makes a Presidential campaign slogan so effective? By and large, good campaign slogans have just a few factors that determine their success: poetic metering that is memorable, sentiment, and vision. By looking back over past campaign slogans for clues, we start to see why these three factors are so important. Get ready though, because when looking back, it becomes clear very quickly that “No Malarky!” is malarky.
Let’s start with poetic metering and linguistic structures. Slogans tend to feature alliteration, repeating vowels, strong consonants, and in general repeating sounds for phonetic unity. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” has all of those repeating a’s and m’s and g’s that make it roll right off of the tongue. Clinton’s 2016 slogan “I’m with her” had the staccato single-syllable words that harken back to other three-word slogans, such as “I like Ike,” from Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign, and of course Obama's "Yes We Can". Alliteration and repetition have been a bedrock of sloganeering since at least the mid-1800s, starting in 1840, with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Besides the rhyming, its strong t’s and long o’s made this slogan one of the most memorable slogans of all time (especially because it seemed to predict Tyler’s rise from VP to the Presidency after William Henry Harrison died just a month into his first term in office).
What does “No Malarky!” offer in the way of repetition? Obviously, the double a’s are good, and the background subconscious of the voting public may already be primed to hear the ‘mala-’ part of malarky as references to recent political figures, like First Lady Melania Trump, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and former president Obama’s daughter Malia. There are also the strong staccato consonants: the ‘n’ in “No” followed by the 'm', 'l', and 'k' of “Malarky”. These consonants give the slogan power and the soft ‘r’ preceding the ‘k’ in gives the word ‘malarky’ a charming punch at the end. This is very good at first glance. These phonetic structures make the slogan memorable and give the phrase strength. The trouble starts when we take a second look at how the phrase hangs together as a whole.
If we divide the slogan into its major sections, there are apparently three parts: “No”, “Mala”, and “-arky!” (the middle ‘a’ belongs to both phrases in this analysis). It is always a good idea to start a slogan with ‘No’ for phonetic reasons. ‘No’ is strong, sharp, forceful. In contrast, ‘Mala’ is soft, with a gentle ‘m’ flowing through an ‘l’ on a series of a’s. It is vulnerable, genuine, and true. Finally, phrase tumbles into the sharp ‘ar’ in “-arky” before resolving with the tight and uncomfortably staccato ‘-ky’. So putting these together, the whole phrase “No Malarky!” goes from strong and sharp to soft and vulnerable to tight and uncomfortable. It’s really those last to syllables where everything breaks down. “-arky” is both memorable and strange. Perhaps it is the harshness of the ‘ar’ followed by the softness of the ‘ky’. That strong to weak movement conveys an awkward strength and a goofy cringe factor that leaves the phrase feeling like a missed punch, like a comeback to an insult that doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Consider how similar phrases sound: “no malice,” “no master,” “no makeup,” “no man’s land.” First, they are all three syllables long, not four syllables. Second, they all feature strong consonants and strong endings. Third, they make use of phonetic sounds that most American’s in Biden’s target audience will be familiar with. How does “No Malarky!” fit in with these phrases? It doesn’t. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Other than as a reference to people from Arkansas, ‘-arky’ is not a sound American’s hear very often. It’s memorable, sure enough, but maybe not for the right reasons.
Of course, we have to talk about that exclamation mark. The punctuation at the end of a phrase has a lot of work to do. A good punctuation mark can elevate a phrase to high art. Consider for example the rock band “FUN.” This band uses a period at the end of their name for the sake of irony. After all, periods are a full stop, party ending buzz kill. Periods are anything but fun. So by putting one at the end of their band name, they convey the sense of lighthearted irony that you can expect to experience when you engage with their music and their brand. The problem is that punctuation at the end of a sentence can also be used as a bandaid to cover up flaws, and that is the case with the “No Malarky!” slogan. To see this, imagine the slogan without the exclamation mark. “No Malarky.” It does not have the same energy, does it? And it hardly rises to the austere grandeur of Obama’s “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can.” Without the exclamation mark, Biden’s slogan lacks energy, and the weirdness of the choice of the word Malarky is impossible to overcome. But does adding an exclamation mark help the phrase? No. Instead, adding the energy of the exclamation mark makes the phrase into a shout, and it gives an already awkward phrase a boost in awkwardness. It makes the flaws louder, gives the cringeworthy “-arky” an extra bit of cringe, and brings in silliness that might not resonate with serious voters. It also immediately reminds one of the last time a candidate used an exclamation mark: Jeb Bush and his famously terrible slogan, “Jeb!” This might be giving slogans more credit than they deserve, but if recent political history holds true in 2020, that exclamation mark has the power to cost Biden the presidency.
The silliness of the word malarky is an issue that must be addressed. Silliness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings a lightheartedness to the campaign that can offset the feeling of doom that pervades the Left in America at the moment. Malarky is something you laugh at, and the word itself is comedic. In comparison to the apocalyptic tone of the Trump campaign, the use of the work malarky sets up Biden’s tone to be the antithesis of everything that Trump stands for. But it also has the potential to turn off worried liberals who rightly consider the 2020 election to be one of the most consequential elections in history. After all, there is a lot at stake here: the future of our democracy, healthcare, and education, not to mention the problem of climate change, which must be addressed during the next presidential cycle if we are to avoid the worst outcomes. Is “No Malarky!” really the phrase that will save America and the world?
This gets into the messaging problem that Biden has as well. What Democrats want is a savior. Democrats want a president who will change our politics for the better, not just by resetting the state of American discourse back to the non-toxic days of yore when Trump’s daily twitter hate was but a twinkle in Republicans’ eyes, but by solving problems and initiating a new era of liberal reforms and progressive policy frameworks. The word 'malarky' is clearly meant to address the first problem, the liberal desire to ‘go back to the way things were before Trump.’ Meanwhile, Biden’s slogan entirely ignores the progressive wing of the Left, who do not want to go back - they want to go forward. Malarky is antiquated, retrogressive, conservative, stoggy, and even somewhat patronizing. That is Biden’s vision for the Democratic party. But it is not the vision many progressives have. Biden clearly does not care about that.
The vision problem grows deeper when we consider what the phrase “No malarky!” is actually saying. In some ways, it is a powerful example of the kind of leadership the Democrats need right now. Biden has just given the Democrats a solid response to the right-wing trolls. The silliness makes the slogan a disarming retort that puts conservative bullies off balance. But the slogan gives Democrats nothing to else say before. “No malarky” is a response to a phrase, which implies that what was said before it is used is, well, malarky. But it does not provide any analysis of what exactly is wrong with the so-called malarky of the GOP. It gives no positive vision, only a negative reaction, and the awkwardness leaves the person who utters it grasping for something rhetorically heavy-hitting and provocative to say afterward, some devastating truth that will justify the risk of exposing one’s self to ridicule by using the word malarky. Without that devastating truth to follow it up, the phrase just falls flat.
At the end of the day, the slogan is not terrible. It is not nearly as anemic as “Jeb!” even if it is just as silly. It also has an understated power that could serve as a foundation for a more powerful response to the Trumpian campaign style of pillaging and burning through American ideals of decency and etiquette. “No Malarky!” is also a very Biden-esque thing to say. The phrase carries a lot of Biden’s personality with it. But the problems with the slogan are deep, and the slogan itself is a risk at a time when a more standard campaign slogan would be a surer bet. Only time will tell if the silliness pays off.