Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Voyages of Discovery

Same old song...

Motorway driving is generally a dull business, punctuated by moments of madness, so you need something to help you to stay alert.  One of our little stay-awake pastimes is spotting the best straplines on the sides of vans and lorries.  You know the sort of thing: "Billy Smith Logistics: get ahead of the competition with BS"; "Tinpot Packaging -- Yes, we can!".  A lot of people have remarked on the inanity of these bits of verbiage, but nonetheless companies clearly feel the need to have one, and presumably have paid good money to some PR merchant for theirs ("Strapline Solutions -- does what it says on the van!").

I suppose the impulse behind this is similar to the politician's urge to come up with dog-whistle soundbites.  It's a very modern mix, this desire to get a message across to a target demographic, combined with a contempt for the intelligence and attention-span of that very same group of people:  "Buy our product, you morons!  Yes, you!"

All this terse attention-grabbing has produced a specialist vocabulary, where words like "solution", "excitement", and "delivery" have to do more work than they are really being paid for.  Sometimes a strapline can seem to be merely a selection of such words picked out of a hat; perhaps those ones are cheaper ("delivering exciting logistics solutions", and so on).  In the end, box-ticking and demographic-tickling are not really exercises in creativity, no matter what PR industry "creatives" might claim.  The first van-side straplines were an inventive and effective idea; the next million or so were just copycat "me too" efforts.

In an earlier post I complained about the appropriation of the words "passion" and "passionate" by the corporate world.  Nothing sucks the life out of a word like power-dressing it in a suit, or writing it continually on a flip-chart until it loses all meaning.  "Excitement" and its cognates had already been turned into dry husks by overuse ("We're really excited to announce the latest revision of Accounting Standard BRS-4353B"), so I suppose "passion" and "passionate" had it coming.

"Passion" has always been a fairly slippery word covering a very wide field, from a serious interest in stamp-collecting to the crucifixion of Jesus, with sex and football somewhere in the middle.  But it has now become part of that cynical vocabulary that encourages a view of wage-slavery as adventure; you don't just have a job, but are following your dream, and that job is not just a way of paying your bills, but a pathway to fulfilment. It is now obligatory to be "passionate" about whatever field of employment you happen to find yourself in: sausage-making, widget-bashing, paper-pushing, cold-calling...  To declare yourself as anything less ("I am not terribly interested in burger-flipping, as such") is to fail to have signed up wholeheartedly for the voyages of discovery skippered by our self-styled buccaneering captains of industry.  Which is to find yourself walking the plank, matey.

The recent competition for leadership of the Labour Party has been exemplary.  You can expect this factitious attitude-striking from the likes of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham: their political souls have been sold so many times over that they must have a tough job remembering who they are in the morning.  Like all career politicians, you would expect them to be excited and to be passionate about whatever might deliver an election logistics solution.  But even Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Excitement himself, used the words "passion" and "passionate" so frequently in the first paragraphs of his victory speech that I began to suspect he'd forgotten his reading glasses and had resorted to making it up.  By Kinnock and by Keir Hardie, it was dull stuff, wasn't it?

So I think I may have formulated a law, that goes something like this:

In rhetoric, the real intensity of a speaker's emotion is in inverse proportion to the number of times any specific emotion is invoked by the speaker.

In other words -- as in all good writing, we are told -- it's a case of show, not tell.  The more you tell us you're passionate about solving all our problems, the more we will suspect you're just another lying, posturing hypocrite.  On the other hand, if you can find ways to solve all our problems, we really don't care how deeply you feel about it.  Be as casual as you like!
But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.


Zouk Delors said...

I have actually seen a van with the strapline, "Delivering Solutions". Chemical supplies company, maybe?

I'm still waiting for the Lord Chancellor's invitation for those with "a passion for dispassion" to apply to be judges though.

David Brookes said...


I would like you to invent a strapline for the Belgian bulk tanker company whose trucks we have seen today (and many times before) on our drive back from Italy. The company is named "Fockedey". Over to you!

David Brookes

Mike C. said...


Crikey, talk about yer fish in a barrel... Reminds me of the French soft drink that always gave my kids hysterics, called "Pschitt"...

"The Fockedey Way keeps the doctor away", maybe, or what about "Fockedey! Yes, Fockedey! Laugh now, there's plenty more where this one came from!". Or "Monday to Fockedey: we deliver!"


Kent Wiley said...

Interesting term that, "strapline". Not one I'm familiar with, and not quite so prevalent on the sides of vans in these parts. Where they do seem to crop up is on billboards for local businesses. But mostly they're reduced to the pathetic "For all your Blankety Blank Needs, call Joe Blow." For all my prophylactic needs, or my suppository needs, or my plumbing needs, or my mental health needs. There are innumerable needs, but a call will take care of them all.

Mike C. said...


Really?? I'm sensing a business opportunity...


D.Morris said...

He, he, Mike, fine post. On a recent featureless trip west of junction 13 on the M4 I saw several large lorries bearing slogans of logistics and solutions. What's wrong with plain old trucks, lorries and haulage, anyway? Interestingly, it seems that it's very tricky to translate phrases like: "I'm passionate about courtly manners in the reign of Queen Fay" from English not French. I fully endorse Chisholm's Law of idiocy; is this the first law? Looking forward to the publication of the second, third, and.....

Mike C. said...


Comment received, loud and clear: the mystery of the missing comments deepens. You're not the first to complain of this -- Blogger is free, of course, which means "light touch" support, at best.

My first law was "No matter what system is used, in any higher education institution average cataloguing productivity proceeds at 3.3 books per hour", but this -- universally true and useful as it is -- has always lacked a certain catchiness.


D.Morris said...

Methinks you are confused between laws and constants. Maybe I can suggest: Chisholm's first law should be expressed something like this: equal volumes of cataloguers at the same temperature and pressure produce the same number of catalogue records for books regardless of their humour and physical attributes. This statement of Chisholm's First Law, then gives rise to the infamous Chisholm constant, which, as any academic Library cataloguer knows is 3.3 per hour.