Laurel Sutton, Senior Strategist & Linguist at Catchword Brand Name Development

As Americans are all aware, the presidential campaigns are in full swing, more than a year before the actual election. (There are also holiday decorations for sale in Costco, months before the holiday season. We just can’t wait for some things, I guess.) As the candidates from both major parties revise and refine their brands, we’re seeing an awful lot of campaign slogans being thrown against the wall to see what sticks. Bernie Sanders, the State Senator from Vermont and Democratic party hopeful, just recently decided to (unofficially) go with “Feel the Bern”.

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While you might not agree with Samuel Johnson that the pun is the lowest form of humor, you would be completely justified in thinking that it’s probably not a good idea to base your presidential campaign brand around a pun like this one. For those born after the invention of DVDs, the phrase “feel the burn” – a reference to the burning sensation in muscles during exercise – was popularized by Jane Fonda in her series of workout videotapes. (The phrase was followed in popularity by the exhortation “No pain, no gain”, which any physical therapist will tell you is a recipe for serious injury.) More recently, “feel the burn” shows up in Urban Dictionary with a related meaning: “a phrase intended to make someone feel even worse about their current misfortune, by telling them to savor the emotional ‘burn’ which they are already feeling”.

So one meaning refers to muscle pain from exertion, and the other to emotional pain over a bad experience. This raises the obvious question: Who is supposed to “Feel the Bern”? His supporters? That seems counterproductive. His opponents? That makes more sense, but what is the “burn” that they’re getting from Bernie Sanders? The intended meaning of “burn” in “Feel the Bern” seems much closer to the meaning in the phrase “sick burn”, which our friends at Urban Dictionary helpfully define as “to insult someone on an elevated level”: Bernie Sanders is making his opponents feel bad by insulting them.

I suspect that “Feel the Bern” was chosen more for how it sounds than the actual meaning. A little digging shows that the slogan was literally crowdsourced; according to the Bernie Sanders Connecticut Team website:

    “Feel the Bern is the unofficial slogan dreamed up by a young Sanders fans in Vermont that has been catching on along with his campaign. Beyond a slogan, Feel The Bern can be translated to mean the desire among his supporters for a politician that is principled, honest, straightforward and consistent in his/her policies over their careers.”

This explanation introduces a third meaning: rather than a play on “burn”, the meaning here is to empathize or understand Sanders (as in the common phrase “I feel you”). Unofficial or not, you can buy “Feel the Bern” mugs, buttons, bumper stickers, and keychains from Sander’s official site.

In terms of catchiness and appeal to the Youth of Today, it’s a big step up from Sanders’ official slogan, “A political revolution is coming”, which sounds vaguely threatening, in a Soviet way. Sanders also uses “Not For Sale”, which is more a response to the GOP and other Democratic candidates and less about his own campaign.

Hillary Clinton, the other Democratic front-runner, has gone generic with slogans. The current official slogan is “Hillary for America”, but on her website you can buy apparel and signs with a logo that replaces two letters with numbers in her name: “Hil16ry” – so “Hillary in 2016”? And on top of this the “H” in Hillary has an arrow as the cross bar, pointing to the right – indicating progress? – which is then cleverly paired with the phrase “I’m with” to recall those hilarious (NB: not actually hilarious) t-shirts of the 1970s saying “I’m with stupid”. Is that really the association we want for a former Secretary of State and presidential candidate?Hillary_Banner_grande

It is interesting that both Democratic candidates use their first names in their slogans, a way of appearing down-to-earth and friendly, more like the constituents they are supposed to serve. But neither of the slogans has the immediate impact or sense of excitement as famous slogans from the past such as “I like Ike” (Eisenhower, 1952), “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” (Truman, 1948), or even “Yes we can” (Obama, 2008). Prediction: we will see more sloganeering from the Dems and Repubs as they try to galvanize voters, throwing even more spaghetti against that wall. Get your “Feel the Bern” mug before they’re gone for good!

  • Shawn Terry

    It’s been almost a year since you wrote this. I think it may be time for a revision. :-) Feel The Bern has become so popular that you will only ever associate it with Bernie.