This week I presided over an event organised by the Worshipful Company of Marketors to analyse the role of marketing in the General Election. We held a similar event after the 2010 General Election. (See my blog It was old media wot won it 29th May 2010).
This must have been one of the most significant General Elections in any of our lifetimes. A week before the General Election the odds on no overall majority were 14/1 on, i.e. a perceived certainty. In the bookies’ eyes a minority government led by Ed Miliband was the 13/8 favourite. The odds against the Conservative party winning an overall majority were 7/1.
To hear the scions of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties picking over the entrails of their defeats, it seems unlikely that they have understood what happened. Instead to get a rational and impartial view we invited three experts to assess the campaign approaches of the parties to evaluate what went right and what went wrong and, importantly, what symbolism they used and why it worked and did not work with their target audiences.
Professor Paul Baines is Professor of Political Marketing at Cranfield School of Management. He believes that too few of our politicians have experience outside the Westminster bubble and certainly of marketing. And it shows. Marketing has always been about building customer relationships. But currently , politicians are less trusted even than journalists, with only 1 in 6 people trusting politicians to tell the truth compared to 1 in 5 for journalists, according to a January 2015 Ipsos MORI survey. Paul believes this lack of trust in politicians in general has allowed Nigel Farage and UKIP to sneak through the middle and glean nearly 13% share of the vote.
In essence this was ‘The election of the least worst party’, something I forecast in one of my pre-election blogs when I said “It would seem that in this as in many of the other issues facing the British electorate that the choice is to vote for the one telling the least lies.”[i]
But political marketing is quite distinct from commercial marketing. In commercial marketing advertisers are trying to achieve some specific objective like introduce a new product or increase market share. In doing this comparative advertising is allowed in practice, but it is usually quite bland in order to avoid litigation. It is not a ‘winner takes all’ game. But elections are fought on a ‘winner takes all’ basis and so negative campaigning is often the result. Some would argue, like Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager,[ii]
that negative campaigning is fundamental for the effective working of democracy.
Certainly the voters in an Ipsos MORI mid-campaign poll thought that the Conservatives were running the most negative, but also the most effective campaign. But an independent analysis by the University of Nottingham’s General Election Leaflet Project suggests that 82% of Labour’s leaflets were negative, 81% of Lib Dem leaflets, 70% of the Tories, 40% for the Greens and, perhaps surprisingly, just 35% for UKIP.
Commenting on the role of the TV debates Paul thought that the Tory strategist Lynton Crosby wanted to dilute their potential effect. David Cameron never went head-to-head with Ed Miliband alone, denying the Labour leader an equal platform to look like a Prime Minister-in-waiting. And Ed Miliband never
looked like a Prime Minister-in-waiting, like Tony Blair did in 1997, or even as Gordon Brown did in 2005-7.
Paul used to work for Ipsos MORI but he reserved his final criticism for the pollsters. Their unanimous prediction of a hung parliament will lead them to do a lot of soul-searching in the coming months as they recognise that the regionalisation of British politics has made polling and its interpretation more complex. “This election definitely presided over the failure of the ‘national swing’ model, where increases in vote share are thought to bring an equally distributed share of seats throughout the country” Paul concluded.
To speak on behalf of the pollsters I welcomed Professor Roger Mortimore, Professor of Public Opinion and Political Analysis at King’s College, London and Director of Political Analysis at Ipsos MORI. He told us that Elections are ultimately about winning seats, not votes. In the British electoral system, votes are not straightforwardly translated into seats. Some votes are more valuable than others. An effective campaign identifies the votes that are going to most valuable to it, and targets its activities accordingly. Different target voters may be best approached in different ways. These considerations are perhaps more important in understanding the 2015 election than any other recent election.
This time there were three separate target ‘markets’:
The key voters in each of these ‘markets’ for each party may be very different, and may need different approaches and the outcome in each of these three ‘markets’ will have a separate effect on the seat totals.
Then one must consider the ‘political triangle’ of party, policies and leaders. The importance voters give to each of these factors varies, and has moved over time. When it comes to issues voters rank these in the following levels of importance:
Healthcare/NHS/hospitals 47%;Managing the economy 35%; Education/schools 24%; Asylum and immigration 19%; Taxation 16%; Benefits 11% ; Unemployment, Housing, Poverty/ Inequality each 8%. Labour are rated best on healthcare with 36% support but the Tories have improved over time and are now up to 23% The Tories are well ahead on managing the economy at 41% to Labour’s 23%. Labour lead on education at 31% to 23%. On immigration Labour lead just at 21% to 17% but UKIP has strong support here at 20%. On taxation the Tories just edge it at 30% to 29%. However these differences become starker when analysed among those rating it as an important issue. Thus of the 47% of people who said the NHS was an important issue 43% rated Labour’s policies as the best rather than 36% of all voters. On immigration of the 19% who rated that as an important issue 50% rated UKIP’s policies the best rather than just 20% of all voters.
Roger presented a detailed perceptual map of party image. This showed clear differentiation with the Conservatives well ahead on ‘fitness to govern’ with a ‘good team of leaders’. Labour and the Lib Dems shared similar ground on ‘looks after the interests of people like me’ and ‘understands the problems facing Britain’ but also ‘divided’ and ‘will promise anything to win votes’. UKIP was seen as ‘different to other parties’ but ‘extreme’ and ‘out of date’. Overall on ‘readiness to govern’ Labour performed badly with 52% disagreeing with that statement and just 33% agreeing.
On a perceptual map of the leaders again clear differences emerged. Cameron is seen as ‘good in a crisis’ and a ‘capable leader’ but ‘out of touch with ordinary people’. Miliband and Clegg again shared common ground with support for ‘understands the problems facing Britain’ while Farage scored highly on ‘has got a lot of personality’ but is also seen as ‘more style than substance’.
The number of people dissatisfied with Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party steadily increased from 40% in 2011 to over 60% at the end of 2014. He recovered somewhat in the campaign but still had a net dissatisfaction score of -19 compared with Cameron at -2. When asked how they think about both the leader and the party more like Cameron than like the Tory party while with Miliband it’s the other way round and he is clearly a negative asset to his party.
But in evaluating the interaction of the three sides of the ‘political triangle’ Roger explained that we must take into account that voters are using both emotional as well as deliberative reasoning. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’ which simply means that prejudices become reinforced. Thus of those who voted Tory in 2010 60% think they have the best policies on healthcare while 76% of those who voted Labour prefer their policies. Even on the economy the prejudice is reinforced and while not surprisingly 86% of Conservative voters think they have the best policies no less than 60% of Labour voters still think their economic policies are best. So is there any leverage here? Just 4% of the public thought the Conservatives were best on at least one issue they thought was important and Labour was best on some other issue they thought was important. Only 2% are divided on the economy vs NHS.
In the days before the election around 20% of both Labour and Conservative voters were wavering in their traditional support but few would vote for the other main party. Ipsos MORI estimates that just 1.1% of the electorate switched from voting Labour in 2010 to voting Conservative in 2015 while 0.6% switched from Conservative to Labour. That’s an overall swing of just 0.5%.
In the 2010 election the Conservatives won most of the battleground marginal seats. This time the threats were different. In the marginals in England and Wales the Tories lost more to UKIP than Labour. Labour lost more on the left to fringe parties like the Greens. These fringe parties won few seats but affected the balance in Con-Lab marginals. This is where negative campaigning works best. By preaching to the converted the main parties shore up their vote. But again the ‘motivated reasoning ‘ takes over as 51% of Labour supporters thought the Conservative campaign was the most negative while 42% of Tories thought that Labour had the most negative campaign,
The outcome in these English Con-Lab marginals were nine Labour gains from the Conservatives, mainly in London and six Conservative gains from Labour. But in English Lib-Dem seats the Conservatives made 26 gains and Labour 11. Movements in Wales were small with the Conservatives gaining two from the Lib Dems and one from Labour. In Scotland the Labour share of the vote collapsed from 42% in 2010 to 24% and they lost 40 seats to the SNP. The SNP gained another 10 from the Lib Dems.
Dr Rachel Lawes is founder of two semiotics commercial consulting firms and is one of the world’s best-known commercial semioticians. Semiotics has two components: Linguistics, including analysis of visual information displays, and Anthropology, the analysis of cultural ideas and trends. Traditionally, election advertising has taken the form of outdoor poster campaigns. The defending party says ‘Everything’s fine, don’t let the other party ruin it’ and the main challenger goes on the offensive. Perhaps the greatest British political poster of all time was the famous Saatchi and Saatchi ad ‘Labour isn’t working. It uses a structure called the Western Visual Semiotic (WVS), identified by Kress and Van Leeuven in 1996. The WVS is a well-documented Western cultural artefact that provides a structure or framework for many visual communications. In the West we read from top to bottom and from left to right. Thus in our minds time also moves linearly from left to right while ideas flow from the top and facts are rooted at the bottom.
In the poster on the horizontal axis the queue of unemployed people heads towards the left, back into the past. Britain is regressing. The strapline ‘Britain is better off with the Conservatives’ appears on the right, over in Future space. On the vertical axis at the top there’s a huge headline ‘Labour isn’t working.’ It’s an ideological statement, a big idea. What appears at the bottom is a fact: ‘Britain’s better off with the Conservatives’.
But the use of posters in this year’s election was considerably reduced after the experience in 2010 when posters were routinely parodied on social media. Still the parodies multiplied as the social media users can take their inspiration from a variety of sources. Political ads aren’t allowed on British television but YouTube ads aren’t covered by the law and that opened the door to aggressive ‘attack’ advertising that UK audiences haven’t seen before in this quantity or vigour. British consumers who spend a lot of time online, on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are very much exposed to US politics and are aware that that is how campaigns are conducted. But they do not necessarily welcome this new way of addressing voters. The Green party’s all-singing, all-dancing ad provoked considerable sarcasm. The general message seemed to be that voters thought the parties should stick to messages of hope, not fear.
Laura described the problems the parties were having with their use of social media. Firstly, people don’t like to be patronised. Secondly, election time is a time when people have a strong feeling of what it means to be British. Thus they resent any perceived American influence. Thirdly, and most importantly it misunderstands the power of humour. A much smarter move is to acknowledge the creativity of the audiences themselves. In the digital culture audiences are not passive. The way to use the online space is to observe what consumers are doing naturally and spontaneously. The scientific term for this is Ecological Validity. Further there’s evidence that carrots work better than sticks. Laura thinks that traditional sit-back advertising should stick to messages of hope while the messages of fear can be left to the voters themselves to craft. Their type of ads can be used to accomplish two things. They engage the voters, surely what every party wants to achieve. And they can be used to monitor the needs and interests of groups of voters. Memes, which are viral images with captions, are beautiful things, full of insight.
These are Laura’s recommendations for the next round of online campaigning.
As Laura explained, the linguistics part helps you design advertising that works. The anthropology part helps you monitor the needs and behaviours of specific cultural groups.
We had a vigorous Q&A and the audience particularly wanted to explore the issue of hope vs fear. My own theory, based on the work of Professor Steve Peters[iii]
, is that they are emotions that are stimulated in different parts of the brain. We may have to use both carrot and stick to reach the whole brain.