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Selling Slogans

By John V. Hedtke | STC Fellow

I’ve always had a fondness for tacky humor. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me: “New heights in low taste” is a working motto for me, right after “Don’t ask me; I’m making this up as I go along.”

About 20 years ago, I was at a client site, and I saw a dozen novelty buttons with really funny slogans on someone’s cube wall. I asked him about them, and it turned out that he’d written the slogans and sold them, to a friend of his he’d known for years, a guy named Jim who runs a button/bumper sticker/refrigerator magnet company called Duck and Cover. Jim was always on the lookout for good slogans, and he paid a flat fee for each one he used and sent a handful of buttons as well.

Well, shooooot, I liked the sound of that! Jim said the process was this: I’d send him button ideas that weren’t already being used on buttons, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, etc. (If I could find it on the Internet, it was probably not saleable.) If he liked them, he’d add them to a list of potentials. After he’d accumulated about 200, he’d send the list out to a dozen reviewers whose opinions on marketability he’d learned to trust. They’d mark the ones they thought would sell. He’d purchase those and make buttons, bumper stickers, and refrigerator magnets with the slogans.

I started sending in lots of slogans. We discovered my hit rate for successful slogans was about 1 in 9. Was that good? I asked. Definitely, he replied; he had writers who only had one good slogan in 50 or 100 submissions.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve sold over 50 slogans. Some of the cleaner slogans I’ve come up with are:

  • I’ve suffered for my art; now it’s your turn.
  • Death is nature’s way of telling you to turn off the computer.
  • Failure is not an option—it already comes bundled with the software.
  • There is a very fine line between a hectic day and a panic attack.
  • It doesn’t pay the rent, but it’s a lot of fun.
  • My spirit animal is the gummy bear.
  • How’d you like to curl up in bed with the author of a good book?

I understand that one of my buttons inspired Hillary Clinton at a stump speech in Aug 2016 or so. My all-time most popular button is “I never thought I’d miss Nixon,” which came out in January 2005. Jim made it into a button, a refrigerator magnet, and a bumper sticker. Since then, other companies have stolen this phrase (mostly for bumper stickers) and also sold it. (It’s very popular!) It’s still in print, which is unusual: most slogans get cycled out after a year or two. But someone was wearing that button on her coat when she met Clinton prior to the speech. Clinton admired the button, and the woman gave it to her. Clinton put it on and did her speech, but at the end she talked about the button and extemporized a few paragraphs on that theme. (I’ve a number of mutual friends with Clinton, so I’ll have to get hold of her and tell her how proud I am that she used my button.)

Writing and selling slogans gives my basic tackiness a way to take meaningful, profitable shape in today’s complex society. And while it’s not a living, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

JOHN HEDTKE (john@hedtke.com) is the author of 27 nonfiction books and 200 articles. When not otherwise occupied, John bakes, writes strange songs, and plays the banjo. John and his amazing wife Marilyn sing together and travel. They live in Washington State. John drinks a lot of coffee.

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