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. 

Decision Marketing

The HMRC campaign provokes more thoughtcrimes


So here is another HMRC campaign against tax evasion. First credit where credit’s due. This is less toxic than the previous campaign that infuriated me so much.

  • The copy tone is less accusatory. They are closing the net on ‘tax dodgers’ rather than what was previously implied that they are closing the net on you personally. And of course the sign off ‘If you’ve declared your income you have nothing to worry about’ is a vast improvement.
  • From a design perspective, it’s weak. The silly turquoise lines are there to suggest some kind of network tricknology to ensnare those wrongdoers who don’t cough up. But again, it still represents a minor improvement to the ghastly eye peering through grey paper they favoured last time around.
  • The Orwellian eye is retained, and despite being less threatening this time, this execution would dearly love to instil a little fear and paranoia if it hadn’t had its teeth pulled. But is this really what the UK government wants the overwhelming majority of its citizens who do actually do pay their taxes to feel? And there’s no need to state again who the real tax dodgers are: they’re not the people walking past this poster on their way to do a bit of shopping.

Why not help people to do the right thing instead?

Here’s an idea. Rather than infantalising us this way, why don’t HMRC opt for a territory that is about making a decision instead of popping out to say boo! to us. Talk to people as if they were adults for God’s sake. Remind them they have a responsibility to pay up, and if they are facing difficulties, the best thing they can do is talk to the tax office to try to sort things out. Remind people that they have the power to decide to pay or decide to engage. For after all, the alternative is exactly the paranoia inducing state that this poster would love to induce.

Of course marketing exists to prompt decisions. In what I call Decision territory anxiety is introduced to add urgency to the purchasing process. But create too much anxiety in a campaign and people will do nothing. (This is true in healthcare and charity sectors too).

The HMRC could instead make the decision to pay look easy and rational. Allow the taxpayer to feel they are able to engage with the tax office, and that they have it within their power to do the right thing. This must surely be better than sticking a giant eye on the side of a public phone box (network geddit) like the one below.

So HMRC, if you’re listening. Lose the 1984 shtick and treat us like adults. Or in other words show us a bit of the carrot, and not just wave the increasingly limp and discredited stick.

Orwell’s writing rules

Prompted by a discussion on Start the Week on BBC R4 I re-read George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. Embedded in this essay, which you can download free here, is some thoughtful and pithy advice for writers. Well worth revisiting.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

1. Could I have put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Later he creates six rules “that one can rely on when instinct fails”.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an  everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Below Orwell enjoying a cig, possibly pondering if women will ever become writers too.


Note to self: not everyone thinks marketing is big and clever.

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

George Orwell