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
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.