Slogans, the Snark and the Rule of Three
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Those catchy three-word slogans are everywhere at the moment, with the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in an outpouring of new phrases to keep society on track, from 'Hands, face, space' to 'Build back better.' Welcome to a copywriting phenomenon with a name: the 'Rule of Three' or the 'Power of Three'. Governments and advertising agencies have been wise to this tactic forever. But why does it work?
The Rule of Three isn't exactly a recent innovation – think Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for instance. With a biblical pedigree, not to mention some cracking fairy tales (The Three Little Pigs, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears), it's hard to deny that there's something innately satisfying and memorable about a set of three. Tom, Dick and Harry; Curly, Larry and Mo; Zippy, Bungle and George – what's not to like?
In comedy, good things also come in threes, known as a comedy triple. Setting up a joke with an element of three generates tensions and primes the audience for the punchline. And if you want to swear with impact, it has to be a three-worder.
There are a few technical terms to get your head around if you really want to show off your knowledge of the Rule of Three. Bandy these around at your next marketing brainstorm for extra geek points:
Triad – the collective name for the three elements
Tricolon – this is where the three words (or phrases) match each other in length/grammatical form/rhythm – think of Caesar's 'Veni, vidi, vici' ('I came, I saw, I conquered') for one of the historical classics
Hendiatris – using three successive words to express a central idea, giving you what's known as a tripartite motto. Abraham Lincoln's 'of the people, by the people, for the people' is a famous one
Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark perhaps gets to the bottom of why the Rule of Three has such subconscious appeal. The poem opens like this:
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
We're easily convinced and reassured by things that come in threes, it seems. So next time you spot a three-word slogan, remember the Bellman and his triad tactic and apply some critical reasoning before you decide whether you want to 'Just Do It'. And when you're developing a slogan, why not see if you can tap into the Power of Three?
PR PRO TIP: Remembering the Rule of Three, you should never try to crowbar more than three key messages into a press release – you'll create confusion and dilute the impact of the story. Things are easy to understand and recall in threes.