Breaking Point

UKIP have released a poster in the week prior to the EU referendum ballot on the issue of immigration.

The headline reads “breaking point”, the ad also carries the body copy “the EU has failed us all” and a call to action which implores voters to vote to leave the EU in order to take back control of UK borders.

The copy on the poster is similar to the sorts of messaging that we have been seeing from the official ‘out’ campaign Vote Leave.  


So why has one of the leaders of Vote Leave, Michael Gove MP, been on the airwaves over the weekend saying (amongst other pejorative comments) that he “shuddered” when he first saw the UKIP advert?

The differences between the Vote Leave and UKIP attacks on immigration are subtle. Which is why the furore that emerged upon the Breaking Point poster release is so illuminating as to the differing perspectives held by groups like UKIP & Leave.EU and those supporting the more mainstream campaign Vote Leave.

The UKIP poster is seeking to capitalise on the anxieties  of those who are concerned about asylum seekers and illegal immigrants gaining access to Britain from war torn / unsafe / economically troubled countries outside the EU. The image chosen is deliberately symbolic of pictures voters will have seen accompanying humanitarian news stories, such as those about Syrian citizens fleeing their homeland.

Vote Leave’s poster on the other hand, on the surface at least, takes exception to extending EU membership to Turkey (et al) on the basis that it would increase the number of people who could legally enter Britain.

As I said, it’s a fairly subtle difference. But it’s clearly the line in the sand that politicians like Michael Gove and Boris Johsnon have drawn.

I’m not sure voters, with plenty of other much more pressing things on their minds, will be as willing to decode the distinction.

Both posters will appeal to those who have strong perspectives on immigration, but I suspect neither speaks to the crucial swing voter who has not experienced any significant personal problems with immigration, nor recognises any major economic benefits from Britain’s EU membership.

If the result doesn’t go their way on Thursday I suspect Vote Leave will wish they had spent more time worrying about finding an approach to communicating their position on immigration in a way that could convince the undecideds that it’s a reasonable policy stance and less time bickering over the precise pitch of the dog whistle.

M&C Saatchi’s first ad for Stronger In

Advertising agency M&C Saatchi, having been appointed by Britain Stronger In Europe in early May, have produced their first advertisement for the Remain campaign.

It shows UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Conservative MP (and former Mayor of London) Boris Johnson, both key figures in the Leave campaign, sitting on a branch of a tree looking gormless whilst they sabotage themselves by sawing through their makeshift bench.

I think the message in the poster is that those who want to leave the EU are creating problems for themselves and, by implication, for the nation.

It isn’t one of the clearest pieces of communication from the Stronger In campaign.

M&C Saatchi have obviously tried to replicate the effect of their big hit from the UK general election – Miliband in Salmond’s pocket – by going without a headline.

Unfortunately, in this instance, I think a headline might well have helped give clarity to the intended message and deflect from any perception that this is an unfounded personal attack.

The confusion comes from the fact that a viewer can’t tell whether the Leave leaders are deliberately putting themselves in jeopardy or are doing so unknowingly.   It matters because the former implies malice and the latter implies ignorance and stupidity.  And there’s no policy message to give those who see it a reason to believe that either of those two attacks is justified.

When M&C Saatchi are on form, they can turn an election.  If you believe the polls, Stronger In will be pushing their agency hard to improve on this first offering.

A fifth reason for Stronger In supporters to remain positive

Stephen Bush, special correspondent for the New Statesman, has written an article which tries to help Remain supporters believe that – despite a string of recent polls putting Leave ahead – there are four reasons to suggest the only way isn’t exit.

It’s a brilliant article and I would like to add a fifth reason to give hope to those who want Britain to stay in the EU:

I believe there is evidence to suggest that the air war is being won by Stronger In.

The ‘air war’ – the media narrative around an election – is a significant factor in the result of any election as it colours the information that the electorate use to decide which way to vote.

One of the reasons why Donald Trump dominated the Republican primary contest is that he dwarfed the earned media coverage of every other candidate; even when the field thinned to three candidates in April, Trump was still getting 100% more earned (as opposed to bought) TV coverage than his nearest opponent Ted Cruz.

Indeed in every US Presidential election since 1970 the share of earned media won by a candidate has been the best predictor of success (better than both nominations and donations).

You win the air war by bombarding newsrooms and news sources with stories, films and photos.  When journalists are scouring Twitter in order to prepare a piece on ‘the horserace’ for the evening news or the next day’s headlines, content from the campaigns can help tip the balance on the nature of the coverage.

Whilst an analysis of 928 press articles by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that 45 per cent were in favour of leaving while 27 per cent were in favour of staying, it seems the trend in TV coverage – which has greater reach as a source of news than print – is towards Remain.

Broadcasting watchdog News-watch have stated that from their analysis “the BBC has yet to accept that Brexit is mainstream, respectable and of significant public interest” and that they have “yet to find a programme that has been biased in favour of Brexit”.  They have conducted regular analysis of flagship BBC TV news programmes and highlighted how framing and language has favoured the Remain campaign.

And the BBC isn’t alone for perceived bias, Vote Leave feel that ITV’s coverage of the referendum is so biased towards Remain that they lodged a (unsuccessful) complaint with Ofcom.  The complaint claimed that between 6 April and 29 May, Stronger In campaigners were awarded 51 min 14 airtime versus “leave” at 39 min 29.

Vote Leave might claim that the fact that Remain are receiving greater coverage is because of institutional favouritism, but had Leave’s campaign been surprising, informative and even – dare I say it – entertaining, it’s hard to argue that these news outlets would have withheld it from their viewers.

And, least importantly, in my opinion the campaigning materials that Stronger In have deployed is of a far higher quality in terms of clarity, consistency and creative execution.  From leaflets, to online videos to Referendum Broadcasts, the Vote Leave materials have been either scarce or shoddy.

Vote Leave have flitted between flimsy claims about reinvesting money saved from leaving the EU into the NHS and pulled punches on immigration.  Stronger In on the other hand have been ruthlessly and creatively delivering a message centred on economic certainty, security and support amongst experts.

Whilst some might scoff at the idea that quality campaign materials make a difference to the nature of news coverage, it’s worth remember that journalists are people too and, like other normal people, they’re easily enchanted by simple stories told well.


Don’t let him sacrifice your job so he can get a better one

Labour In for Britain, the Labour Party’s campaign to remain in the EU, have been running this graphic as a paid Facebook post for a few weeks now.

It was the first advert of note which used Boris Johnson’s perceived careerism as a reason to vote to remain.

Labour In will see their audience as existing Labour voters and supporters and their task as getting them out to vote, therefore a personal attack on Jonhson with a message about jobs is a potent combination.

Johnson for many in the Labour Party represents the worst of the Conservatives: they see his manner as frustrating and lament his record as Mayor.

Labour supporters also loathe him because they know (even if they try not to admit it) that a Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party would be a formidable opponent in the 2020 general election: swing voters were twice won over by Boris’ charms in London. 

The headline in the advert has a lovely rythm to it and the piece as a whole is very well put together.

There’s a few pieces being written about Stronger In adopting a “take out Boris” strategy in the final weeks.

Personal attacks often backfire and they would do well to make sure that any negative ads targeting Boris are – like this one – linked tightly to an area of policy.

The Gamblers

Gamble with your future - remain poster boris gove farage

The Stronger In campaign have released a brilliant new poster accusing the leaders of the Leave campaign of gambling with the future of the country.

The poster dramatises two undeniable truths:

  1. The politicians acting as the public face of Brexit are perceived as mavericks, even by those that support them.
  2. Voting to Leave represents a step into the political unknown relative to voting Remain.

As with all great political posters, this poster brings to life an idea or issue which the public will likely have already thought, but it does it in a way that is surprising and visually arresting.

And, like other great negative ads throughout British political advertising history, there’s enough wit – found in the setting, the characterisation of the politicians and their facial expressions – to take some of the sting out of the attack and keep the public onside.

To the people who conceived it and those who bought it – well played.

The irony of Cameron’s camp accusing the leaders of the Leave campaign of being gamblers won’t be lost on Economist readers; my favourite cover from that publication in recent years was in the week after Cameron pledged an in / out referendum in early 2013.



Gordon Brown – lead not leave

It’s another year, another referendum where the future direction of a nation is at stake and Gordon Brown has made another barnstorming speech.

The video has had over 2 million views on Facebook, which is impressive even if they have put some money behind it.

I like the way the location of the film is relevant to the speech; and didn’t they get lucky with the weather!  You can pay a lot of money to fly to sunny locations half way across the world just to achieve that lovely lens flare.

The copy-writing is very good indeed (aside from the slightly tricksy ‘fight with arguments and not with armaments’ line).

The sense of patriotism that the film managers to evoke is incredible and the sentiment of the whole piece is very neatly summed up with the end line “lead not leave”.

It’s almost worth having another referendum in a couple of years time just so that we’re in with a chance of getting a third referendum-themed masterclass in oratory by our man from Kirkcaldy.