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Deconstructing 'Keep Calm and Carry On'
In the second world war, the British government produced a poster that simply said 'Keep Calm and Carry On'. Around sixty years later, a surviving poster was unearthed and copies were sold, along with prints on merchandise such as mugs. What happened next was amazing. Sales went through the roof and the 'Keep Calm' idea has been re-used in a massive range of messages, from the permissive 'Keep Calm and Eat Chocolate' to the nonsensical 'Keep Calm and Best Brother in Britain' (and even the cynically contrarian 'Get Worried but Do Nothing).
But why? What is it that made it so popular? What makes this message so viral? The effect is every copywriter's dream, so maybe if we can deconstruct it a little, then we may find rules to guide other persuasive message.
First of all it plays to nostalgia. The original wartime lettering has been kept, along with a natty official-looking crown and government red background (although the variants often also use forties pastel hues). This style helps evoke the image of the day, which now speaks of a embattled and brave nation, where people worked unstintingly for the common good and did not complain about their own hardship. This is amplified by the whole phrase which invokes the archetypal stoic British nature.
But what else? What makes the phrase so powerful even without its nostalgic quality?
First, it is simple and short, which makes it easy to remember. In five words it carries two messages, to keep calm and to carry on with the day's work rather than becoming anxious and distracted. Anxiety and stress are common human afflictions and are relevant to people in the present day, making the message seem current and pertinent. Readers hence pay attention to it and may recognise the wisdom of the suggestion (and certainly the evocation of the wartime spirit lends power to this).
The message also sounds feasible and easily within the scope of the common person. It does not urge people to fight for victory, a notion that was as terrifying then as now. To face bombs, bullets and blood with unflappable coolness is an uncommon quality, while carrying on with everyday life seems perfectly doable.
The phrasing is a direct command, rather than an optional suggestion or mollifying sympathy. Its curtness brooks no refusal and the surprise caused may well lead to conformance rather than reaction. 'Carry On' also has military connotations as it evokes the officer inspecting troops and, approving what they are doing, telling them to 'carry on'. The authoritarianism and absolute power of military officers gives no option for refusal, again giving strength to the statement.
'Keep Calm' and 'Carry On' are both commands that say pretty much the same thing. So why are both needed? This is 'double-tap' reinforcement, where the second command immediately after the first command gives no time for refusal of the first command. Repeating the first message in a different way helps those who did not get it the first time. The slightly different but similar second message also causes cognitive loading as the reader compares the two messages to test for alignment or contradiction. When you get people thinking about something, and especially where there is no real counter-argument, then they have no time for creating other objections.
The double command is also sequential. First you keep calm, then you carry on. When you have taken one step you are in motion. The second step builds momentum while establishing both direction and a pattern that just needs to be continuously repeated.
Note also how assumptive the message is. 'Keep Calm' assumes you are already calm. It does not say 'calm down' or, worse, 'don't worry', as these invoke thoughts of stress and hence may increase rather than decrease it. Assuming calm shows confidence in the other person and boosts the self-confidence that leads to calm. When you show approval, you invoke pride, which also leads to a desire to act in the manner for which the approval is given.
Whereas 'Keep Calm' is quite specific in its direction, 'Carry On' is vague and open-ended. While this continues the theme of confidence and sustaining effective action, it is not clear what action is supposed to be carried on. This allows the reader to insert whatever they are doing into the equation, making it applicable to a wide range of situations.
Given this power, it is paradoxical that, although many posters with this message were printed before World War 2, none were used. Perhaps those in charge in wartime Britain lacked psychological insight and thought the message too wimpish and soft. Like many managers today, they probably preferred more extrinsic messages including 'Your freedom is in peril' and 'Dig for victory'.
The bottom line is to always consider the subtleties of messages, making them unconsciously powerful while keeping them memorably brief.