Call me the opinionated curmudgeon or the truth-telling sage.  Call me anything you want, but when you do please don’t use some empty slogan.  If there is one thing I dislike more than spin and FUD, it’s the empty slogans that back them up.

Problem Statement

Too many times I’ve heard analysts, and those wanting to make a name for themselves, coming up with phrases such as “wield the power or yield the power” without any real solution for change.  These empty slogans rally the uninformed with their easy to relate to sound, yet fall on dead ears of those who understand that complex situations cannot be solved with catch phrases.  At best empty slogans fall by the wayside, and at worst they deter progress by keeping people in the dark about the true complexities of problems, enabling the problem to persist and even exacerbate itself like a cancer.

I don’t have a problem with slogans that come with backing, but empty statements have no place in bringing about positive change.  My current frustration is with the slogan, “Rugged Software“.  Is it slogan or a challenge? Will it be effective or is it a hollow statement?  My position is that any effective call-to-action slogan must carry with it some meaning and, even better, a toolbox of item with which to execute it. This slogan has neither.

History of Slogans

1. “Don’t Mess With Texas”

Probably the most well known slogan, though few know its intended purpose, is “Don’t Mess With Texas“.  This slogan has little to do with Texas individualism but with trash or should I say litter.  That’s right, in 1985 the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) used this slogan – after many failed slogans – to reduce the amount of litter on Texas roadways.

The National Corporative Highway Research Program (NCHRP)’s Reducing Litter on Roadsides mentions “the campaign reduced the amount of visible litter on Texas highways by 72% in 6 years (Texas Department of Transportation 2008). The DOT asserts that the success is the result of, at least in part, the use of athletics and musicians who are admired by the the target audience.”  After millions of dollars and a plethora of celebrity endorsements middle-aged males were finally encouraged to reduce the amount of litter they threw out the window or onto the ground.

So why was this slogan so successful?  Earlier slogans of “Don’t be a Butt!” failed to launch even though they targeted the same audience of 18-35 year old males that were most at risk for littering.  Remember that even back in 1985 we knew the leading cause of litter was cigarette butts.  In a 2005 Visible Litter Study of Texas it showed that:

  • Over the course of 2009, approximately 1.1 billion pieces of litter accumulated on our highways; while this represents a 33% increase over 2005, it marks an 11% decrease relative to 2001.
  • Why the increase in litter since 2005? Cigarette butts! Tobacco trash – including nearly 400 million cigarette butts – comprised 43% of all litter on our roads.
  • The Texas Dept. of State Heath Services estimates 18% of all Texans smoke, and six in 10 smokers admit they litter. What does that mean? It means that just 11% of Texans are responsible for 43% of all our litter!

Apparently not only does smoking kill, it also accounts for the greatest form of litter in Texas from 1985 to 2009.  In fact, “According to the VLS, the amount of litter in nearly every category has increased since 2005 — tobacco, cups and cans (non-alcoholic), construction items, household and personal, and automotive debris.”

Has the program been effective?  Well picking up trash along the Texas roadside has cost the state “$47 million in 2009 … up from $38.7 million in 1986”.  This increase is costs is prevalent even though studies show a nationwide decrease (by 50%) in smoking from 1965 – 2007.  The smoking rates for Texans was 18.6% in 2008, almost on par with the national average.

2. “Take a Bite Out of Crime”

On July 1, 2010, McGruff the Crime Dog turned 30 years old with his famous slogan “Take a Bite Out of Crime” created for the National Crime Prevention Council. The goal was to reduce the levels of crime in 1980 which had reached a peak.  Now “crime” is a relative statement but is most often measured by a combination of violent crime and property crime.  There are other categories such as drug and cybercrime but for the sake of continuity of numbers we will account for just violent and property crime, the prime targets of the slogan.

According to the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) figures, “the crime rate had risen sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bringing it to a constant all-time high during much of the 1980s, it has declined steeply since 1993.”

Though the anti-crime slogan was adopted in 1980, crime continued to rise for another decade.  In fact, if you review the BJS figures along with the FBI crime figures you will notice a pattern outlined in the graphic above.  Both show a rise in violent and property crime from 1960 to a peak in about 1991-92.  This means the slogan either took 11-12 years to really take hold, or there’s another explanation for the decline in crime from 1993 to 2003.  (Some people suggest it was the introduction of the Three Strikes Law first passed by Washington state in 1993.  This turned out to be statistically incorrect after a 10 year study proved no correlation between such state laws and the reduction in crime.)

Instead, could it be the economic rise that lasted from 1993 – 2007?  If we measure the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) from 1993 at 3,500 to its height in 2007 14,000 one can easily understand why the violent crime rate followed an inverse pattern.  (Sure there was a DJIA dip in 2002 but it rebounded in only a few short years.  Crime shows a leveling off in those years but still a decline across the board.)

3. “Click It or Ticket”

One of my favorite examples of a slogan is “Click It or Ticket“, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration campaign to increase the usage of seat belts in the US.  The slogan campaign specifically targeted young adults due to their low usage of seat/safety belts.  According to the Social Marketing Institute that closely monitored this program, we understand the following items.

Before 1980, usage of seat belts in the United States lingered around 11% despite volunteer and educational campaigns at local, county, and state levels. Between 1980 and 1984, individual organizations, public education programs, incentives and policy changes strove to increase the use of seat belts. However, these efforts failed to significantly affect usage in large, metropolitan areas, and in by the end of the effort, national seat belt usage had reached only 15%.

In 1984, New York became the first state to enact a mandatory seat belt use law, and by 1990 37 other states had followed suit. The vast majority of these laws were “secondary safety belt laws”, meaning that an officer had to observe another traffic violation before issuing a citation for a seat belt infraction. Despite this, the national usage rate climbed from 15% to 50%.

An extensive evaluation of the program showed not only when both communication and enforcement were combined in a single unified marketing strategy, the results were impressive (a 14% reduction in traffic fatalities), but when the communication was withdrawn and the enforcement left in place, seat belt use dropped dramatically. Once the communication component was restored compliance went back up.

An empty slogan alone would not have helped save lives and neither would just the law.  It was the combination of strong communication and message of call-to-action (“Click It”) plus deterrent (“or Ticket!”) that made this slogan an effective winner.

Analysis

Each of the above three slogans teaches us some important messages about about communication.

  1. “Don’t Mess with Texas” sounds to me like an empty statement and has little backing behind it.  Though it was effective for a short while, and though a high percentage of Texans associate it with anti-littering, the rate of such problems only slowed at best.  It is hard to say if the slogan was effective since the volume and cost of cleaning up litter both increased.  Perhaps the slogan slowed the activity but it had nowhere near the effectiveness as the seat belt slogan.
  2. “Take a Bite Out of Crime” sounds a bit more direct.  It mentions the call-t0-action and the direct object it wishes to affect.  It is debatable and perhaps unlikely that this slogan had a noticeable impact on crime due to the increase after its inception.  The eventual decrease in crime over a decade later can easily be explained in the increased economic jumpstart that rose the level of affluence across the board. (The 1980s were one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression in the 1940s.)
  3. “Click It or Ticket!” is just a great slogan since it combines call-to-action with deterrent and in this case an actual law.  Police in many states can now pull people over just for violation of this law instead of previously requiring another, more serious, reason.  The statistics show clearly how a good slogan combined with enforcement can be a powerful duo in affecting change.

Conclusion

How does one measure a slogan, and how does “Rugged Software” measure up?  Do you inherently understand the call-to-action? Is there a deterrent? Is the slogan celebrity endorsed and targeting the proper groups with the right incentives?  Only time and data will tell, but I challenge such organizations that wish to affect change to consider these criteria.

Moreover, I think a good slogan should also be backed by a solid set of tools, resources, guides, and such that lower the barrier to entry for people to participate.  In the case of litter due to cigarette butts, we can encourage the use of additional ashtrays in cars.  In the case of software, we should provide a series of guides, e-learning, checklists and such that provide guidance on how to secure applications based on both the functional use of the application and the language in which it is developed.


Update: I have received more cuss word feedback on this blog post than I have on anything else I have ever written; so let me clarify end explain the goals of my position.

I actually like the “Rugged” software movement as a method of raising awareness. I didn’t give it enough praise for starting a movement, but that is all it is, a start. Rugged is an infrastructure that in order to be remembered as an effective movement need a nervous system and muscular system.

Just like “Click It or Ticket” we need to pair the positive awareness with tools, checklists, and even enforcement of some sort (be that regulatory, legal or other).  I don’t want the success of Rugged to make people complacent or feel that a manifesto alone is an effective strategy.