December 12, 2006

Slogan strong

It's hard to disagree with the idea that the US Army really needs a new slogan. For some mysterious reason it's become dificult for  the military to recruit new soldiers these days. So the Army is spending 200 million dollars a year  for a new one. The result is a real zinger -- "Army Strong." Maybe you've already heard it. The televsion ad produced by the New York advertising firm, McCann and Erickson, has a deep male voice saying, "There's strong, and then there's Army strong."

Interestingly, the adjective comes after the noun it modifies. As Huddleston and Pullum point out on pages 560-561 of their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (here), only "a handful of adjectives are resticted to postpositive function," such as "flowers galore, "the city proper," and "restaurants aplenty," and they all are special in certain ways (read -- better yet buy -- this important book to find out how).  But it seems that those who create slogans, like poets and lyricists, can do whatever they want with language, including putting adjective modifiers after nouns. I can recall a country music song sung by Don Williams, "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend," in which the first line is "Coffee black, cigarettes, start this day like all the rest."

Apparently the Army's previous but somewhat unfathomable slogan, "Army of One," just didn't communicate whatever it was that it was trying to communicate and its "Be All You Can Be" seems to have worn out whatever effectiveness it may have had. So the brief "Army Strong" is the current winner. As slogans go, it seems to be laudatory in comparison with the uncomfortable feeling of isolation created by "Army of One" (who wants to fight a war alone anyway?) and by the vague hope offered by "Be All You Can Be" (note the conditional "can" as opposed to the more positive "will" here).

I don't know if the Army has tried to copyright "Army Strong" but if it has, it could run into some problems. For one thing, the US Patent and Trademark Office regulations don't often allow copyright registration for short phrases and slogans. And typically the slogan has to be used in the same manner as the mark. That is, the slogan has to be used to identify the source of the goods or services, as opposed to being merely informational, generic, or laudatory, those characteristics that would make it difficult for consumers to distinguish the product or services from others. For example, after an electric shaver manufacturer came up with the slogan, "Proudly made in the USA," the pattent office wouldn't register it because the slogan didn't identify the product. The same result for Carvel's slogan, "America's Freshest Ice Cream," which didn't distinguish the product's source from that of other ice creams. Most slogans that pass the registration tests can be clearly identified with their product or service to the extent that when consumers hear or see the slogan, they can identify it with the source. It's possible that the army is safe on this one because "Army" is 50% of the entire slogan -- unless consumers confuse it with the Salvation Army or the army of some other country.

"Army Strong" is clearly brief and laudatory and whether it identifies the source of the organization may or may not be up for grabs. On the other hand, Nike's famous slogan, "Just Do It," and Kentucky Fried Chicken's "Finger Lickin' Good," neither of which identify the source of their products, developed what trademark law calls, "secondary meaning," protecting these slogans from use by others. But this usually takes time and heaps of money. Seconday meaning arises when consumers eventually come to identify a trademark or slogan with their products or services. In the now famous case of McDonald's v. Quality Inns International (here), it was the secondary meaning resulting from millions of dollars in promotion and advertising that enabled McDonald's to protect its Mc- prefix to this day. Maybe spending 200 million dollars will do this for the army.

Startlingly, by creating and promoting a two-word slogan, McCann and Erickson collect a hundred million dollars per word ( I know, a lot of this goes into advertising). But it might be nice if linguists could make that kind of money.

Update: Several readers point out that they don't see the slogan as a noun with a following adjective modifier. Using (rather good) examples, such as "Ford Tough," "dog tired," and "butt ugly," they didn't think the word order strange. Maybe they're right. But it still sounds odd to me. And maybe that's what the slogan is supposed to do -- which might make it a good one.

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 12, 2006 12:31 PM