Roger on a step change in negative political advertising

Roger on a step change in negative political advertising


“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” – Groucho Marx

Exactly six weeks ago in my first header on the campaign from an advertising perspective I wrote “The advantages of a negative campaign by REMAIN are obvious, the unknown can be made to seem a scary place. By contrast for the LEAVERS dystopian visions are a difficult sell when the EU has been with us for 40 years.”

I could hardly have been more wrong.

After three weeks of shambolic campaigning by LEAVE which seemed to consist of Boris on a whistle stop tour and little else Nigel Lawson appeared on Question Time and to an innocuous  question about EU enlargement claimed a vote for REMAIN was to risk 77 million Turks at our border. It sounded ridiculously far fetched but there was an audible gasp from the audience.

Meanwhile the well oiled machine that was REMAIN brought the Saatchis on board and a lot of speculation about whether this was the signal for the campaign to go dirty.  To date their campaign had consisted of some rather dodgy sums from the Treasury and a procession of the great and the good – up to and including the POTUS – extolling the virtues of REMAIN.

The entire Establishment with the most feared agency in the land were now facing a rag tag of amateurs who were making it up as they went along. 60/40 in favour of REMAINING looked about right.

Then the first campaign broadcast. A surprisingly upbeat effort from REMAIN where we saw 14 month old Sam and the bright future he could expect if we REMAINED in the EU. It was bland and predictable and the message clear. ‘We’re in the lead. Don’t rock the boat’

LEAVE by contrast produced a piece of work that was brutal. A truly apocalyptic vision of the UK if we remained in the EU. It was dark the graphics were crude and a split screen showed the fate of a sick and elderly woman suffering at the hands of an  NHS swamped by foreigners. It made three connections. Public services will be overrun by 77 million Turks, £350 million is being paid weekly to the EU and leaving would mean we could spend this money on ‘our own’.

At first the reaction was muted. It was aimed at elderly Labour voters. It seemed too exaggerated to convince a wider audience and the tone and content more ‘BNP’ than one likely to be taken seriously by a mainstream British audience.

But then a strange thing happened. The messages began to be repeated and not just by elderly Labour voters. Every vox pop seemed to include ‘Turkey’ and more worrying for REMAIN the connection was being made between ‘Turkey’ ‘£350 million’ and ‘public services’.

The following week the same broadcast was repeated and by this time it had become reinforced by the infamous Turkish poster and had become the campaign theme of the Boris travelling circus.

Then the polls shifted. Not a point or two but a complete turnaround. And not a single pollster but all of them. The message was being parroted everywhere.

When ‘Labour isn’t Working’ came out in 1979 Denis Healey said in the House of Commons ‘The people in it are not genuinely unemployed. You’re selling politics like washing powder’. Ironically the only advertising with no rules is political advertising. Had it been for a washing powder it wouldn’t have got through.

Over the intervening 37 years political advertising has become more negative and more effective. The poster of Miliband in Salmond’s pocket has been credited with turning a hung parliament into a Tory victory.

Though commonplace in America this is a step change for this country. We’ve never had anything like it from a mainstream campaign and we’ve never seen a single negative broadcast resonate or turn a campaign as this has done.

When Boris stands on the steps of Downing Street and delivers the immortal lines “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty we’re free at last.” I wonder whether the world will feel as admiring of his campaign as they did MLK’s.


Roger, who has had a long and successful career in advertising has been posting on PB since 2004

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