Is digital political advertising causing a democratic deficit?

Hugo Rifkind has written a very good article in today’s Times newspaper outlining his concern that voter segmentation, targeting and communication practises – now in common use (to some degree) by all mainstream political campaigns – are preventing politicians from being held to account for the claims and promises they’re making to voters.

You can read the piece here.

The conclusion he reaches is one that I wholly agree with and have been calling for regularly for some time: political advertising needs to be regulated.

Rifkind’s solution to the lack of transparency on political campaigns’ advertising is:
“It should be law that every last piece of paid political communication is made public, perhaps on the Electoral Commission’s website.”

The implication is that journalists, interested citizens and opposition groups would then be able to scrutinise the ads and hold the purveyors to account.

I would go further and setup an independent committee of fact-checkers to rule on whether factual claims in political adverts are misleading and give them the power to take down communications that are not truthful.

However, for this to be possible they must have visibility of all the ads being run and so some sort of monitoring (or pre-clearance) system will certainly be necessary.

The New Labour ad campaign that (sort of) never ran

The excellent University of Nottingham Department of Politics (full disclosure: I am an alumnus) and The People’s History Museum, based in Manchester, are collaborating on a twitter feed which live tweets the 1997 general election campaign 20 years on.
Yesterday they featured an article from the Daily Mirror about an ad campaign that New Labour’s ad agency at the time – BMP DDB (now Adam & Eve DDB) – pitched to their clients.

Whilst Blair didn’t agree to run the campaign – feeling it was “demeaning” – the posters still ended up in front of the public via the tabloid’s editorial coverage.

Given that New Labour would have had to seek permission from the creators of the characters (and likely pay for a license) had the posters run in paid media and the news value of “leaked posters”, it wouldn’t surprise me if a – now infamous – spin doctor had a hand in getting these aired.*

It’s hard to judge these objectively so long after the event, but my instinct is that Blair was right not to run them “officially” – highly personal attacks without any clear  basis in an issue have a rich history of backfiring.

You can follow the feed @newdawn1997.


Thanks to a couple of commenters -who pointed me towards the relevant entry in Alastair Campbell’s diaries (below) – I can confirm my suspicions are correct!

Psychographic segmentation and election campaigns

Cambridge Anayltica, a consultancy, are getting serious attention from publications as diverse as Motherboard and Marketing Week.

The reason for the hype is because they provided highly specialised audience segmentation and communication services to both the leave campaign (Leave.EU) and Donald Trump.

The video above, featuring Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix talking about how their technology and strategy helped Ted Cruz fight an impressive primary campaign, is a brilliant synopsis of why and how campaigns are using data to improve their chances of winning elections.

There has been some discussion as to whether or not they “got lucky” and are “bullshitting opportunists”; I would assert neither but I’m yet to be convinced that they – or any other campaign  – are using the technology to the extent that some of the hype implies.

It is common sense to say that the more you know about the drivers of someone’s decision-making,  the more able you will be to communicate in a way that will be persuasive to them.

And it’s certainly true to say that big data, digital communication channels and new advertising production techniques now mean that we have the ability to speak to ever smaller segments of the electorate using bespoke communications designed to be particularly persuasive to them.

However, I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the segments which campaigns are targeting are as granular as some of the excited discussion around this topic suggests.

The segmentation that Cambridge Analytica use divides people into 32 psychographic groups and then overlays other behavioural data around propensity to vote and support for particular issues.

Are campaigns, such as Leave.EU and Donald Trump, creating bespoke advertisements to cater for the thousands of possible voter segments that such a model could create?

I don’t think so.

Indeed both the Trump and the Brexit campaigns are notable for the fact that their creative advertising output was low in volume in comparison to their opponents.

(It must be noted that, given the nature of the discreet targeting, I would only see adverts that are created specifically for me, so the only way to know for sure would be to see the archives of the campaigns’ universe of messaging)

But are campaigning techniques like this already being implemented – albeit at a more basic level – and do they represent an important aspect of the future of political advertising?



Event: what happens when Westminster and AdLand collide

Sam Delaney, author of the seminal book ‘Mad Men And Bad Men: when British advertising met politics’, is hosting a panel event on Sunday 12th March featuring a group of people who have defined political advertising as a discipline: Bill Muirhead, Jeremy Sinclair CBE, Lord Tebbit and Shaun Woodward (tickets available here).

Bill Muirhead & Jeremy Sinclair  CBE, Executive Director and Chairman of M&C Saatchi respectively, were both intimately involved in the Conservative Party’s successful campaign to win a majority at general election 2015.   I suspect they would have been two of a small handful of people who conceived, sold and delivered the defining image of the 2015 campaign (and I would argue the best political advertisement for a generation).

Given the number of elections they’ve worked on, it wouldn’t surprise me if they have considered every single one of the ways to execute the only two strategies in existence: it’s time for a change, or, it’s not time for a change.

Miliband in Salmond Pocket Conservative Party poster

Lord Norman Tebbit was a towering figure in the Conservative general election campaigns of 1983 and 1987.  Lord Tebbit was only second to Margaret Thatcher in terms of Conservative Party appearances on radio and television news broadcasts during the 1983 campaign with 81 appearances (Thatcher made 331).

And in 1987 Tebbit – amongst other roles – was the ‘client’ for Saatchi & Saatchi.  He is credited with insisting on a relentless focus on the economy and defence, bought some incredibly memorable advertising and spearheaded a third successive general election victory for the Conservatives.

Image result for fastest growing europe economy 1987 conservative poster

Shaun Woodward was an MP from 1997 – 2015 and was responsible for coordinating the Labour Party’s 2001 general election campaign.  I would argue the 2001 campaign saw the peak of the Labour Party’s creative advertising output, with the infamous ‘be afraid’ poster being the overall highlight.


They’re all getting together, as part of a series of events celebrating the centenary of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,  to discuss what happens when AdLand and Westminster collide and you’d be a fool to miss it.