This is a case study paper that I wrote jointly with my colleague Emily Harlock about the advertising campaign run under the Homes for Britain brand in the build up to the 2015 general election.
Summary: making politics personal
This campaign combined innovative audience segmentation, strong human insight, precise media targeting and a political campaigning framework to influence the politicians and policy-makers of Britain in the intense run-up to the General Election.
We took an enduring issue that had become the wallpaper of this country and gave it personal resonance for both voters and politicians.
This bold campaign on a limited budget clearly set out for the first time the real, human consequences of the housing crisis and made people realise that they are in fact victims of it.
The politicians responded to our campaign with rhetoric, promises and pledges and in doing so helped catapult housing into the top five issues that UK residents feel are facing this country.
A young adult who returns to live with parents after a period of living away from home.
In 2013 I became a boomerang kid. I decided that it was time to face the ignominy of begging my parents to allow me to return to the nest so that I could begin the long slog of saving for a deposit to buy a house.
It was a double whammy. On the one hand I hand to give up leasing a flat with friends in a trendy part of town. And on the other hand I had to reignite my campaign against the outright ban on overnight guests that was implemented by my landlords / parents in early 2002.
And to think, I’m one of the incredibly lucky ones who have parents that live near enough to London to enable me to commute into the city and earn enough to have a realistic chance of getting together a deposit.
But what’s wrong with renting I hear you say?
A survey by YouGov for Shelter found that:
- 33% of private renters say they’ve had to cut back on the amount they spent on food because they had too little money left over once they’ve paid rent
- 12% of renters report that high housing costs have affected their ability to move for work.
- 21% of renters without children admit they are delaying starting a family because of a lack of affordable housing.
- 24% of renters had to continue to share living space with a partner even after the relationship ended. (1)
In short renting negatively impacts people’s health, career and important relationships (read: life).
Homes for Britain is a new group that campaigns for affordable housing in England. They believe that everyone should have the home they need at a price they can afford and, as such, asked AMV BBDO to help build a campaign to make their aspiration a reality.
Prior to 2015, housing hadn’t been a General Election issue for decades.
In 2010, housing organisations across the country developed detailed manifestos, research reports and policy papers, working tirelessly to highlight the harsh realities of the housing crisis and the specific action a future government could take to tackle it. Yet, despite that, housing was barely mentioned during the election.
It was almost absent on the campaign trail and was a minor footnote in the Leaders’ Debates. A month before the election, housing was down at number 15 in the Ipsos Mori issues index, with only 3% of people saying it was an important issue.
Six months later, in the Coalition’s first Spending Review, investment in social housing was cut by over 60%.
There was no public outcry.
Ending the housing crisis in a generation
Homes for Britain were determined for a different outcome at General Election 2015 and set their ambition on getting all political parties to commit to end the housing crisis within a generation and publish a long-term plan for tackling the housing crisis within their first year of government.
These were noble ambitions, but with the rise of UKIP and a focus on immigration, Europe, the NHS and the economy, housing was in real danger of slipping down the priority list again.
Getting the right people behind the mission
The ultimate audience for the campaign was politicians. They are the ones who needed to commit to ending the housing crisis within a generation, and would be the ones forming a government that produces a long-term plan for doing this.
But elections are all about votes, and no politician worth their salt will make an election commitment to something that the public doesn’t care about. So in order to convince politicians, we also needed to convince the public to campaign on our behalf.
Lobbying politicians is wholly dependent on targeting the right segments of the public that will have the most sway. With a limited budget – and therefore a need to be single-minded – we had to consider which audience would be most influential in making politicians see housing as a priority issue for the election.
We couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
The conceived wisdom was that homeowners should be the bullseye target.
They are an attractive audience for politicians because of their size; they outnumber both those who privately rent and those people who live in social housing.
And politicians would be susceptible to a campaign from homeowners as they tend to be older and wealthier and therefore more likely to vote (see graph – in short – if you’re over 35 and you earn over £30k per year, you’re very likely to vote).
But we had doubts. We questioned whether some homeowners would actually see a benefit to the crisis in the ever-rising house prices. What homeowner doesn’t want the price of their house to increase?
We tested our theory with the great British public. We conducted quantitative research to ask different segments of society whether they would get involved with a campaign to end the housing crisis.
Only 5% of homeowners stated that they would be interested in tackling the housing crisis. They weren’t going to be an active voice when it came to lobbying politicians. (3)
Interestingly, however, 30% of the private rental audience seemed to be highly likely to support our campaign. (3) However, the accepted wisdom in previous general elections was that people who rent don’t vote because they are young and they are relatively poor.
It seemed we had a receptive target audience, but without any perceived sway.
We had to show that renters were in fact voters.
We dug deeper into the audience and the issue and found that, ironically, the housing crisis had created an entirely new socio-demographic profile of people who rent.
Government-published statistics show that renters, due to the housing crisis, are no longer overwhelmingly young and poor.
Indeed, 33.49% of private renters earn more than £30k and 41.5% of private renters are aged 35 – 64; so of the 9 million people privately renting in England roughly 3.3 million people are highly likely to vote. (4)
(the eventual turnout of the private rental population in 2015 was 51% according to Ipsos Mori)
This was a huge breakthrough for us.
Not least because the difference between the Conservative and Labour share of the vote at the last UK general election was 2,097,137 votes.
So not only were private renters likely to vote, but thanks to the housing crisis there were now easily enough of them in England alone to impact the outcome of the next election.
Aware… but unaffected?
Our quantitative research revealed that 86% of people (and 82% of renters) stated that they were aware that “there is currently a housing crisis across the UK”. (3)
However, the Ipsos Mori issues index showed that only 13% of people considered housing a priority for the election. (5)
How could it be a crisis and yet not a priority?
This was the pivotal moment in the development of our strategy.
Not only did we ask people whether they were aware of the housing crisis, we also asked them whether they personally considered themselves a victim of it.
Whilst awareness of the housing crisis was widespread, a whopping 87% of people (and 79% of renters) said that they did not feel that they were a victim of it.
People were acknowledging there was a problem but didn’t believe they were personally affected by it.
We needed to show them what being a victim of the housing crisis really meant.
A nation shouldering responsibility
Qualitative research uncovered the reason behind this lack of personal engagement with the housing crisis. Most people see the issues with their housing situation as a consequence of personal circumstances. They see it as their problem to fix – they need to earn more, or move, or get a new job. Not many people realise that the government has the most potent role to play in solving the housing crisis.
Again, quantitative research corroborated this insight; we found that no one was really sure who to blame for the crisis. People were completely unaware that the housing crisis is a result of successive governments’ failure to create the conditions for more housing to be built. When asked about who they thought was responsible, the respondents listed, in order:
- Buy-to-let landlords
- House builders
- The banks
- The law
- The Campaign to Protect Rural England
- Local councils
Armed with these insights, it became clear that there were two roles for our communications:
- Expose the personal costs of the housing crisis.
- Convince people that it was a problem that could be solved and it was up to the government to do so.
The Apathy Staircase
To get people to support the campaign and lobby politicians, we needed to help them see that the compromises they make in their living situation are a direct and personal result of the national housing crisis.
The term ‘housing crisis’ – frequently banded around by the media – was actually creating a distance from the issue, resulting in apathy towards the subject. It feels remote and intangible. If people have a roof over their head, it is understandable that they don’t claim to be in ‘crisis’.
In order to begin tackling apathy towards housing we borrowed from a commonly used ‘community organising’ strategic model known as The Apathy Staircase:
We applied the principles of this apathy staircase to the phasing of our campaign and the roles for communications within both phases.
Phase 1: Expose the personal costs of the housing crisis
(Experience and Injustice steps on the Apathy Staircase)
If people don’t think they’re impacted personally by an issue, they don’t tend to care much about it. So, our first task was to make people realise that they are affected by the housing crisis by highlighting symptoms that they might relate to.
Phase 2: convince people that the housing crisis is a problem that can be solved and it’s up to politicians to do something about it
(Visioning and Action steps on the Apathy Staircase)
Even once people accept that the housing crisis is something that impacts them, our qualitative research showed that people think it’s an unavoidable consequence of living in Britain.
It’s something that ‘just is’.
So, phase 2 was to convince people that the housing crisis is a problem that can be solved and it is up to politicians to do something about it.
Phase 3: get politicians to sit up and listen, on their own turf
But we didn’t stop there. Not only did we target the general public, and specifically the private renters, we also went direct to the people making the decisions: the politicians.
We took our campaign to them; to a place they visited every day and couldn’t ignore.
We booked a complete station takeover of Westminster station and dramatised how much it would cost to buy a home the size of each media space. The price featured in the ad depended on the format that they are being run in and was accurate to the size of the space.
The aim was to ‘shame’ the political class into deciding that it was time to act.
A localised approach to influencing the country
In order to avoid spreading the relatively small available budget too thinly we adopted a marginal seat strategy with phase 1 and phase 2.
Historical precedent (and political common sense) suggests that political parties pay particular attention to the voters and polling in the constituencies where the race is closest.
We hoped that our advertising would motivate voters in marginal seats to raise the issue of housing when the political parties knocked on their doors. And by dominating a small number of disproportionately important seats we could be confident that when the parties’ leadership teams visited they would see and feel the scale of our campaign.
Of the 80 most marginal constituencies in the country, we decided to focus on those in urban areas in order to be able to get high levels of awareness by buying media in a concentrated space.
And to get even more specific about which seats to buy media in, we only targeted those where there was an affordability crisis; this was defined as being places where rents had increased by more than 5% year-on-year.
Having carried out this analysis we were left with 14, highly marginal seats in urban areas, where housing could play a significant role in deciding the election.
And in order to achieve a more general level of awareness we also bought marquee poster sites in major UK cities and ran a significant online display and bought social media campaign.
An unprecedented response
“We have very little systematic information about political opinion in individual constituencies… gathering such information is prohibitively expensive.”
Measuring the salience of individual issues at a constituency level is famously costly. Not one of the titans of the polling world – including YouGov, Populus, IPSOS-MORI or even Lord Ashcroft – can afford to run polling of that scale. As such, we were unable to do a ‘before’ and ‘after’ measure of our campaign at a constituency level.
We can point to the fact that engagement rates on our digital advertising reached 4.5% and we averaged a click-through-rate of 1.9% across both Facebook and Twitter, far exceeding benchmarks.
We can be proud of the earned media response that our campaign drove – including articles in The Guardian, Independent, Vice News and Huffington Post and broadcast coverage on BBC News, Sky News and ITV News.
But the more important, yet more difficult to attribute to our campaign, was the massive reaction of the political parties who, soon after our launch, began a housing policy arms race.
Our activity ran between March 2nd and 30th April in marginal seats across the country, significantly raising the profile of housing as an issue in the key battleground constituencies.
The response in policy promises and rhetoric from political parties was beyond even our highest expectations.
On April 27th, Labour announced “the biggest house building programme for a generation” by committing to building at least one million houses by the end of the next parliament.
This policy was added as an addendum to their pledge card which was launched over a month earlier; an unprecedented move.
This announcement marked a culmination in an intense period of pledges by the parties on the issue of housing:
- April 14th: Conservative Party pledge £1bn for a brownfield regeneration fund that will produce 400,000 new houses by 2020.
- April 14th: Liberal Democrats promise to build 300,000 homes per year
- April 27th: Green Party pledge to end ‘Right to Buy’ and build 500,000 social homes on brown field sites.
As a result of this party posturing on housing and increased public debate of the topic, the perceived importance of the issue rocketed across the country.
Using quantitative research provided by YouGov that is published on May2015.com site we can see that since our campaign launched housing has increased from 17% to 21% of people saying that it is one of the top three issues facing the country.
Housing also climbed to the 5th most important overall, sitting behind only the economy, immigration, health and welfare.
As for what happens in the General Election, we shall see. But this campaign proves that it is possible to take a wallpaper issue and make it both personal and urgent – and as a result, get politicians to shape their manifestos around it.
In the 2015 Autumn Statement Chancellor George Osborne announced that the government would double the housing budget and pour money into a series of programmes to build 400,000 new homes across England.
- Shelter. The human cost; How the lack of affordable housing. 2010.
- IPSOS-MORI. How Britain Voted in 2010. 2010.
- Survey, Vision Critical. Housing survey; sample size 2,004 & nationally representative. 2014.
- Government, Department for Communities and Local. English Housing Survey; demographic and economic data on social and private renters. 2014.
- IPSOS-MORI. 2014 Issues Index Aggregate data. [Online] 2014. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3507/EconomistIpsos-MORI-Issues-Index-2014-aggregate-data.aspx?view=wide.