The Power of Words: While 'Brexit' packs a punch, 'remain' is sadly lacking. Why the right language is key to a campaign

EU Language Lesson

When was the EU referendum won and lost? 

Since every British citizen became an expert on politics and international trade around two and half years ago, whoever you speak to on this subject will no doubt name you a different turning point. But few would probably pinpoint 1 September 2015, a full nine months before the vote took place, as that pivotal moment.

But it was on this day that the whole framing of the Brexit debate changed. Small though it may seem, few linguistic decisions in history can have had a greater impact than the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to rephrase the referendum ballot from a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’.

Remain is Weak

Creatives understand the need for emotive language to engage a target audience. 

There’s a reason State Street’s Fearless Girl was ‘fearless’ rather than merely ‘brave’, or that Dove campaigned for ‘real’ (rather than, say, ‘proper’) beauty. 

And it should have been clear to most of us from day one that ‘remain’ had a serious image problem.

For there can be few words in the English language with less emotional resonance than ‘remain’. 

In fact, almost all common uses of the word have negative connotations. One may have ‘the right to remain silent’ after being arrested, be the ‘last remaining relative’ or consume their ‘last remaining reserves of patience’ over some interminable debate or other (sound familiar?). 

Barring one notable exception (from Talking Heads) there are virtually no references to ‘remain’ in the whole of Spotify’s back catalogue.

In a straight shootout against the active, dynamic ‘leave’ (and its intoxicating partner-in-crime, ‘Take Back Control’), did the Remain campaign ever really stand a chance?

Stay is Strong

Compare it to the obvious alternative, ‘stay’, and the differences could hardly be more stark. “Won’t you just stay for one more?”, a friend may ask at the end of an evening. A successful date may culminate with the invitation to “stay the night”. “Let’s stay together”, implored Al Green. 

For every warm, expressive incidence of the word ‘stay’ in popular parlance, there is its equal and opposite – the cold, passive, pejorative ‘remain’.

Another cursory glance at Spotify shows us that artists as diverse as East 17, Sam Smith and Mac Miller have all appreciated the emotional pull of the word ‘stay’. So would the British people have felt the same had it replaced ‘remain’ on their ballot paper? We will never know.

But if there’s one lesson all marketers can take out of the referendum campaign (other than the imminent need for a subsidiary in Dublin) it is that, time and again, emotion trumps reason in decision making. 

And that our choice of the right language can have a huge impact on building those emotional bonds.

Heart Trumps Head

Faced with a decision between a rational, fact-based argument and Colin Kaepernick whispering ‘just do it’ in their ear, most consumers will take the choice that tugs at their heartstrings rather than the one that engages their grey matter.