Eulogy for an Exclamation Mark

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An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.*
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

The U.S. presidential season grinds on, but let's take a moment to reflect on the branding of one of the drop-outs, the ex-candidate with dubious punctuation. That would be a certain John Ellis Bush of the exclamation mark. In other words: Jeb!

Exclamation points can be useful for imbuing an idea with energy and excitement, but gratuitous exclamation marks are often jostling for undeserved attention. The same goes for other forms of emphasis italics, bold, swearing, or all caps. Used rarely, they wake people up. Use them all the time, they turn people off.

Bush and his consultants must have grown to regret branding him as "Jeb!" Political writers and snarky bloggers dropped his punctuation into their prose whenever they referred to Bush, and the exclamation point stood out like a schoolkid dressed in a Halloween costume on the wrong day.

Bush's branding was casually mocked left, right and center:

...and on and on. There were reports in December 2015 that Bush was abandoning the exclamation point, but it was permanently retired in February when Bush withdrew his candidacy.

Why did Bush and his advisers choose to brand him as "Jeb!" to begin with? The decision was likely part of his strategy to distance himself from the Bush family name and appear as his "own man" by emphasizing his first name. Then, maybe they thought "Jeb" by itself looked a little naked. In addition, to go after the Hispanic vote, the branding used the inverted Spanish exclamation mark and appeared as "¡Jeb!"

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And of course, Bush was drawing on the traditional use of the exclamation mark in its evocation of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement.

The exclamation point seemed particularly out of place when a certain rival successfully characterized him as "low energy." But regardless of this insult, the exclamation point never fit. Bush's brand ultimately wasn't that he was exciting but that he was the reliable, establishment candidate. To that end, the campaign later tried to roll out "Jeb Can Fix It."

The political horse race aside, the greater point is that branding messages must align with what they represent. Messages should emphasize the compelling and distinguishing characteristics of the product or service (or political candidate). Jeb!'s exclamation mark him seem out of touch with himself, voters, and what he might represent to them.


*Or maybe Mark Twain