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For a Terrific Tag Line, Give It Appealing Rhythm, Through Meter

by Marcia Yudkin

If you’re planning on using your company slogan as a musical jingle, you know it needs catchy rhythm. However, if you have no plans to advertise on radio or TV, you should still infuse it with rhythm. Your tag line (strapline, catchphrase, endline or slogan) stands out when it has the heightened word craft of a line of poetry. With a recognizable rhythm, your line feels harmonious, and it’s easier to remember and repeat correctly. It has elegance. It flows. It dances with life. 

Say these two lines out loud, for instance:

Your gas tank should have a tiger in it.
Put a tiger in your tank.

Did you hear how much more powerful the second version is? That’s due to its rhythm.

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English majors call the rhythm of a line of words “meter.” They have raftloads of technical terms for different types of meters – iambic pentameter, anapestic tetrameter and so on. Fortunately you don’t have to learn any of that to use meter as a marketing tool. All you need is to be able to recognize – and manipulate – the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line. In what follows, a capitalized word indicates emphasis and a non-capitalized word does not receive emphasis.

For example, you’d analyze the New York Times’s slogan like this:

ALL the NEWS that’s FIT to PRINT

Barnum & Bailey’s tag line:

the GREAT est SHOW on EARTH

And in general:

(DUM) de DUM de DUM de DUM (de DUM de DUM…)

According to renowned director John Barton, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, this pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables is the poetic meter that most resembles ordinary English speech. It feels both natural and special. Without using any tricks or artifice, it takes on greater intensity than a sequence of words that has no recognizable pattern of emphasis.

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Almost as common as the DUM de DUM de DUM meter illustrated above is one using triples, as in Clairol’s tag line:

DOES she or DOES n't she?

How natural this too sounds you can see in Crest’s slogan, where the same rhythm is attributed to a kid:

LOOK ma, no CA vi ties!

This meter was definitely intentional. Fiddle with the message and express the thought without rhythm, and you’ll notice it loses its catchiness:

Hey ma, no cavities today!

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A triple meter normally either starts with a downbeat, followed by two unstressed syllables, and repeats, or it starts with two unstressed syllables, then a stressed one, and so on:

DUM de de DUM de de (DUM de de…) or 
de de DUM de de DUM (de de DUM…)

Consciously or instinctively, copywriters put a lot of effort into arranging words so they have rhythm, and you should too. You don’t need fancy hundred-dollar words, just patience in trying lots of different combinations, moving words to different positions and substituting synonyms with a different number of syllables until you arrive at million-dollar gems like:

Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.
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Don't just book it. Thomas Cook it.

Copyright 2011 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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