ANAHEIM, California (CNN) – Say what you will about the ever-building excitement of the presidential campaign season so far, but there's one thing that is hard to deny:
The candidates' slogans have been boring.
Thus, on the freeway here, when I saw a certain slogan on the back of a small green-and-white truck in the next lane, I was filled with delight. It was easily the most memorable slogan I have seen anywhere this year - and the fact that it had nothing to do with any of the people running for president didn't change its impact one bit.
In fact, the candidates, and their advisers, could learn a lot about marketing from Mike Diamond, the man who owned the truck.
He advertised himself - these are the exact words - as:
“The Smell Good Plumber.”
It was such a fine slogan that I knew I'd have to look into it later (flagging down the truck, although I wanted to, seemed a little excessive). The slogan refers not to the work that the plumbers from his company do - it doesn't refer to the homeowners' bathrooms and basements once Mike Diamond's men get through with them. It refers to the plumbers themselves. We'll get to that in a bit.
But first, to the presidential candidates. Campaigns, throughout American history, have used some crisply crafted slogans. There was “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage” (Herbert Hoover). “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (William Henry Harrison). “He Kept Us Out of War” (Woodrow Wilson). “A Full Dinner Pail” (William McKinley). “In Your Heart You Know He's Right” (Barry Goldwater). The citizens of those eras might not have agreed with an individual candidate or his slogan - but they remembered that slogan.
(I know what you're thinking - one candidate this year has a great slogan. But there are two problems with your supposition. We'll get to that, too, on the way to Mike Diamond the Smell Good Plumber.)
What was Mitt Romney's campaign slogan?
Don't even try. You don't know it. It was “True Strength for America's Future.” Read that a few times at bedtime and you're out like a light.
Mike Huckabee? “Faith. Family. Freedom.” Quite sincere, and undoubtedly heartfelt, but nothing you'll recall without prompting five years from now.
John McCain? “Ready to Lead on Day One.” I know, I know - you thought that was Hillary Clinton's slogan. That's the trouble with it - McCain has a slogan that you associate with someone else.
Speaking of Sen. Clinton, no one really knows what her slogan is. There have been so many of them. She started with “Let the Conversation Begin.” Then there were a bunch of headache-inducing public policy lines that her advisers liked to display on banners behind her when she was speaking. For a while she was urging her audiences to chant along with her: “Turn up the heat!” Now, when you go to her website, you find out that she evidently is urging her supporters to “Make History!” Abe Lincoln, when running for re-election, told voters “Don't Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream,” but Sen. Clinton has changed slogans so many times that she might as well not even have one.
Which brings us to Barack Obama.
Regardless of whether you support him or not, you likely are thinking that “Yes We Can!” is a terrific and inspiring slogan.
Here are the two problems:
“Yes We Can!” is not his campaign slogan. The much more pedestrian “Change We Can Believe In” is.
And, even if you accept that “Yes We Can!” has become Obama's de facto campaign slogan, you should know that in 2004 one of the Bush-Cheney campaign slogans was: “Yes America Can.”
They built a bus tour around it. The slogan was theirs.
So. . . .
Let's close with the coiner of a truly wonderful slogan, and consider what makes it work.
Mike Diamond came up with “The Smell Good Plumber” because he thought that was what homeowners secretly longed for. When they called a plumber, they quietly dreaded the prospect of someone coming into their home smelling like a sewer.
So Mike Diamond put together a pledge: “I guarantee my plumber will show up on time and smell good or your house call is free.”
He had the line about “The Smell Good Plumber” painted onto every one of his trucks that go out on calls in a wide swath of Southern California. I got in touch with his plumbing office and spoke with one of his colleagues, a fellow named James Thompson.
“The slogan definitely refers to the smell of the plumber himself,” Thompson said. The words work as a marketing tool, he said, because the best slogans, the ones that stick and won't let go, are slogans “that are off by one degree.” A great slogan has to address a feeling that is already present in the potential customer, he said - but to be effective, the slogan has to be just that slight bit off-kilter.
The plumbers who work for Mike Diamond, Thompson said, “feel a little pressure” - if they smell bad as they enter a home, they know they have broken the company's guarantee. But customers, because of the slogan, don't confuse Mike Diamond's plumbers with anyone else's. Which is the point.
Are any of the presidential candidates likely to follow Diamond's marketing example? Almost certainly not. In a political business where every tenth of a polling point is dissected and analyzed and turned upside down, no campaign manager is eager to take the risk of being that one quirky degree off.
But if a candidate is losing ground, and needs to do something to recapture the public's interest. . . .
In a long election season, there's probably nothing wrong with promising to be the Smell Good President.
Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.