Advertising Campaign Fail Marketing Politics Propoganda

The referendum viewed as marketing

The campaigns run by both sides in the recent referendum were failures. Here’s why.

Remain – a classic negative campaign that backfired


Remain vote’s tagline was Britain Stronger In Europe. At first glance this seems fair enough. But look again and you’ll see how extraordinarily passive it is. With no verb there is nothing to be done. Instead there is the hanging comparator of ‘stronger’. Stronger than what? It’s a dead end that constrained their campaign right from the start. In the photo above you can see how this line becomes something more positive. But by this point the grey anaesthetic of remain had done its job.

The next textbook error was that the campaign bombarded us with features not benefits. The opinions of leaders like President Obama or the IMF’s Christine Legarde, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney – as well as a slew of home grown experts were wheeled out to suggest that leaving the EU would be a historic error. Many of them quantified exactly how bad it would get. But where were the benefits? Where were the positive reasons to stay? There were no carrots, only sticks, in the Leave campaign.

It became branded as Project Fear by its opponents (a phrase which had been recently used in the Scottish referendum). This jibe could have been overturned at a stroke, if the Remain camp had responded by varying its tactics. But the campaign failed to do so. It also allowed Michael Gove to dismiss the ‘experts’. Like hardened smokers being told cigarettes are bad for you, once you scare people beyond a certain point, they tune out.  This relentless negativity gave no positive outlet for those who felt disaffected. Basic psychology, and 101 marketing. The call to action was… do nothing.

On the eve of the vote, we heard sound bites from Jean-Claude Junckers. “Out is out…” David Cameron got “the maximum he could receive, and we gave the maximum we could give so there will be no kind of renegotiation.” Listening to this dispiritedly at home, I imagined the gleeful whoops from the Leave camp. As these vaguely menacing sound bites were everything they could have wished for.

So those who put their cross in the Remain box had been given no positive reason to vote by their side’s referendum campaign. There were great stories out there, but they were all presented as scare stories. Rather than an opportunity to positively redefine the UK’s role in Europe, the remain vote was a dreary exercise in maintaining the status quo, which wasn’t going to wash with a nation struggling, often miserably, in persistent austerity.

Leave – the fabulous panacea

Conservative Party leadership contender

Time and time again the Leave campaign hammered home the message “Let’s take back control”. Those who work in marketing think of this as a bog-standard off-the-shelf benefit that fits almost any product. You can take control of your finances with a mortgage tracker account, take control of parasites with flea powder, and so on ad infinitum.

The beauty of Let’s take back control is that, like the Nike tagline Just do it, you can attach a million aspirations to the phrase.  It has a verb in it. It is performing an action, it is the active ‘doing something’ choice. Let’s take back control appeals to those who feel disaffected or profoundly unhappy with the status quo. Context is everything however in marketing. A narrow reading of this phrase suggests we’ll take back control from Europe, who were apparently running our country. I don’t know about you, but I am barely able to walk down the road without being ordered what to do by a faceless Eurocrat. No, wait. Other than being able to be travel and be welcomed throughout the EU, the bureaucrats have left me alone.

So an open-ended active messaging was a huge advantage for the leave camp. They deployed figures sparingly, and often vaguely. Somehow we would have improved fishing quotas (ignoring that the EU’s policy on the north sea, for example, which has brought back several food species from the brink of extinction). Their claim that they would spend £350 million a week to the National Health Service was hotly disputed (and later reneged on the morning after the vote was won). But on the whole they cleverly steered clear of a feature-led, figure driven approach to campaigning. They focused on the benefits. This mainly relied on the deployment of abstract nouns. We would gain Sovereignty, Freedom, Control, Independence and so on. It sounded great. This optimistic mood music allied to the undoubted charisma of Boris Johnson, meant the campaign became a magnet to all kinds of aspirations.

But underneath it all was the messaging about immigration, of taking control of our borders, and limiting the numbers of immigrants. There are many people in the UK who are uneasy about migration, and here I think of older people living in areas whose entire language and culture has changed about them, and there needs to be a conversation about this. But the campaign went straight to blaming the foreigner for the ills that beset our nation. For me personally, racism is something I have actively campaigned against in my life so this strain of the campaign was anathema to me.

The racism was exemplified by the poster below, launched by Nigel Farage. It is the nadir of political marketing in my lifetime. Its forebears were a monstrous hybrid of Nazi propaganda, and the old Conservative  Labour isn’t working Saatchi & Saatchi poster for the 1979 election campaign.


So where now?

Unsurprisingly the positive, open ended campaign attracted more votes. After all, who wouldn’t want to take control? The problem now, however, is that people who voted to leave did so for a vast array of reasons. In the aftermath of the campaign it seems few of them were related to the EU.

The leave campaign’s castle of clouds is melting away. Election promises about money to the NHS, limiting immigration and so on have all evaporated. Of the three most prominent leave campaigners, Gove, Johnson and Farage, only Gove remains, his hands bloodied after backstabbing Johnson. Because the marketing promise of the election was so vast and ill defined, it is inevitable that there will be ‘buyer’s remorse’.

The Remain camp too. David Cameron has resigned. While the Labour party, largely ineffectual in communicating their Remain support, is left in disarray.

We who live in the UK needed better from our political class. Possibly the most marketing savvy country in the world fell foul of terrible campaigns, of fear and empty promises. The media too were either partisan or failed to unpick the arguments.

There is a crisis in the UK, that affects the stability of other countries in Europe and beyond. It manifests itself as a political and economic crisis. But at its heart is also a crisis in the way we communicate with each other. There has to be a better way than this.

campaign Campaign Fail Copy Marketing

5 ways this HMRC marketing tactic is not okay

HMRC at the ATM

1. This is not okay because despite it being a threat to tax dodgers, its imagery unambiguously accuses you. It’s aim as a piece of marketing is to deliberately make you feel paranoid.

2. This is not okay because it is intrusive. This tactic has been chosen to threaten you as you are about to embark on the private transaction of getting your cash out. Despite the best efforts of Seth Godin, and his permission-marketing acolytes, we are all accustomed to be interrupted by marketing. But this is just unpleasant.

3. It is not okay because it is straight out of George Orwell. Here is Big Brother’s all-seeing eye representing the state. Does the state really want to be seen like that? Isn’t there another territory this can belong to, that is more positive and less reliant on poorly executed 1984 based-concept?John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

4. It is not okay because of the physical context of the message. You may be getting money to buy some food, a fluffy kitten or something else utterly innocuous. Nevertheless this requires a cash transaction, a vulnerable moment in a busy street or public area. A great moment for the government to threaten you? No, actually.

5. It’s not okay because it creates anxiety. An agency of the state uses the old copywriter’s trick of stating the negative ‘If you’ve declared all your income you have nothing to worry about’. But it seeds the idea of ‘worry’ nevertheless. And even if you take the line at face value it is overpowered by the imagery and headline.

And, by the way, it’s not okay to threaten individuals while vast corporations get away with it. 

Alien Campaign Fail

Five favourite marketing aliens

As Jim Morrison of The Doors sang, People are strange, when you’re a stranger. And you don’t get stranger than aliens. Here’s my list of top five aliens in British marketing.

1. The Argos Aliens. These aliens are useless boring blue things with spindly necks, and poor dress sense. They spend their time loafing about in the way the bog standard British family do when portrayed in advertising. As stooges for the marketing message, however, they are fab. For the one thing these aliens have journeyed for light years through the outer darkness to discover is that they can shop online, and then pop into their Argos store to collect their orders. Woah! That’s how we roll guys. Worth the trip?


2. The Smash Aliens. In contrast, the much loved Cadbury’s Smash dried mashed potato aliens have attitude. Although plastic and jerky, the Smash aliens were superior to us. “they are clearly a most primitive people,” they chortled like derisive Daleks. For in the 1970s humans in the UK still made mashed potato by, um, mashing potatoes, rather than adding boiling water to a starchy powder to form a noxious, potato-based gloop.

Smash aliens

3. The Playstation Alien Chris Cunningham’s 1999 Playstation TV advertisement Mental Wealth featured a young Scottish woman with an CGI modified face and spindly body. Although she simply sits on a stool in an uncluttered set, her unsettling alien quality suggested an unnatural insight into Playstation’s virtues. Her copy starts teasingly: “Let me tell you what bugs me about human endeavour. I have never been the human in question, have you?” The on-screen copy reads was DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF PLAYSTATION. This is an alien who knows things we do not.


4. The Vodaphone Yoda By 2012 the consequences of the Jedi master’s drinking problem, always evident in his stumbling speech, led to him accept a gig as Vodaphone’s brand ambassador in the UK, where he was pictured at a bar (surprise, surprise) drinking ‘tea’ and being impressed with something crap to do with phones.

Yoda 2

5. Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Granola Aliens. Boy are these timid, nervous aliens. Not only that, they are something of a marketing fail as they have little or nothing to say about the product, other than be tremendously scared by the sound of someone munching a spoonful. Squandering the power of good aliens, if you ask me.


Campaign Fail Marketing

HMRC undeclared income campaign

I encountered the new HMRC campaign for the first time this morning at a cashpoint. As I was waiting for my hard-earned cash to be vended, a pair of piercing blue eyes stared up at me from the screen, with the line ‘We’re closing in on undeclared income’. It was the most unpleasantly Orwellian moment I have ever experienced from a piece of marketing had from a marketing tactic.

As a poster on the street (see below) I would have seen it for the badly-executed visual cliché it is. But context is everything. On a ATM machine, you are in the middle of a private (and, on some streets, vulnerable) transaction. Suddenly finding yourself being threatened by the state comes as a shock.

I was cheerfully getting some cash with the idea of buying a few groceries, but for a full minute I found myself surprisingly angry. I pay my thousands of tax each year and always have done, but is the UK now a country where state bullying is acceptable?

As fate would have it, the ATM was on Jubilee Street, Brighton, a few doors down from Starbucks. I don’t need to spell out the irony of this. But here’s an idea HMRC. Instead of threatening random ATM users in the street, how about advertising your success at retrieving the countless millions owed by international corporations, such as the one hiding in plain sight a hundred yards away?