Elections and brands: gimmick or gold mine

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Last week I wrote an article for BBDO KNOWS, a planning resource for the BBDO network, which I’m reproducing here with their permission.  BBDO KNOWS offers thinking, strategy, insights and inspiration on key categories, key themes and consumer segments. If you are interested in learning more about the way BBDO thinks please contact Melanie Norris, Global Planning Director, norrism@bbdoknows.com.

This week saw the US head to the polls to choose their next president and, as ever, there were plenty of brands trying to get a share of the attention.

Given the dwindling number of universal moments in culture, it’s unsurprising. For brands that would struggle to authentically associate themselves with Back-to-School or Halloween, the US Presidential election provides an alternative opportunity for a pre-Christmas communications push.

Here we look at three tactics that brands have used to get involved in the election, and who has done it well.

NEWSJACKING

The most common tactic used by brands trying to associate themselves with an election is the ‘Newsjack’. A Newsjack refers to the practice of a brand anticipating a story that journalists will already be writing and creating a piece of content that will fit seamlessly into the story.

The run up to the election day will always see vast numbers of articles on the theme of “America is going election-crazy”, and this year has proved no different; these stories look at the unusual, extreme and hilarious things that people, neighbourhoods and (crucially, for PR purposes) brands are doing to celebrate the festival of democracy that is polling day.

It’s the one time of year where an Italian restaurant has a chance of generating earned media by emailing a picture editor a photo of a pizza that’s looks like a politician.

A Newsjack tends to generate the most short-lived type of fame, but given the relatively small amount of effort that is required on the part of brands to achieve it, it can often pass the cost-benefit analysis required to run the campaign.

ELECTION-RELATED SALES PROMOTIONS

Similar to a Newsjack, but requiring greater effort, is the election-related sales promotion. An example of this is 7-Eleven’s 7Election campaign where they offered customers ordering an XL Stay-Hot drink a choice between a red and blue cup to represent Trump or Clinton. These were then tallied and used to predict the result of the election.

The ambition behind a sales promotion like this is simply to increase the relevance of a product during this highly debated period, and (hopefully) give a spike to trade.

Election-related sales promotions however rarely have any effect on market share, as they tend to bring in people who were already in the market for a product and any spike begins to decay when the polls close and the time-limited promotion concludes.

BUILD BRAND VALUE BY APPROPRIATING EQUITY FROM THE ELECTION

The election-related activity that will arguably do most for a brand’s longer term market share is the sort which is targeted at the majority of the population (buyers and non-buyers alike), using mass media, which conveys a message in an emotional way.

This is very hard to do around an election. Emotions relating to politics are fairly volatile (to put it lightly) and any brand trying to take advantage of, or capitalise on these feelings, runs the risk of alienating or upsetting large numbers of people.

However, one brand who has managed to get it right this year is Audi, the automotive manufacturer, who premiered a spot – ‘Duel’ – during the first live televised debate. It showed a man and woman seemingly fighting to the death over something relating to the Presidential election.

It delivered a message about the desirability of the RS7 in a high-octane, awe-inspiring, adrenaline-pumping way that took emotions the audience would have already been feeling about the election and channeled them into the Audi brand. By hijacking the conversation already happening around the debate, Audi was able to generate earned media without alienating either side.

GIMMICK OR GOLD MINE?

Whether you want a quick blast of publicity, a spike in sales or an increase in long-term brand value, there are ways of achieving it around election time. And, given that major elections are as certain to capture the nation’s imagination as holiday seasons and Super Bowls, it is worth brands thinking about how they could take advantage the next time the country heads to the polls.

“Is political advertising dead?” #QTWTAIN

is-political-advertising-dead-financial-times

QTWTAIN, for the uninitiated, is an acronym of ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’ that was originated by journalist John Rentoul.

It refers to the age-old tactic used by commentators to create a sensational story out of nothing by writing “headlines in the form of questions to which the author or publisher implies that the answer is yes when anyone with any sense knows it is no“.

This weekend, the front page of the Financial Times Life & Arts supplement was adorned with a blatant QTWTAIN.

s article has been forwarded on to me by pretty much everyone I’ve ever met with a comment along the lines of “ooooo sounds like the death knell for your boring blog MATE; you will have to find something even more niche to write about now (if such a topic even exists)”.

To save myself the hassle of coming up with a suitably hilarious, whilst seemingly-well-informed, response to each of them, I thought I would pen a short retort here.

Garrahan raises some valid points and concerns that I agree with:

  • There is certainly a big consumer trend towards ad-blocking & ad-avoidance that is challenging the ad industry as a whole (though this doesn’t impact political advertising any more than it does those seeking to promote soap powder).
  • There hasn’t been a standout political ad of the 2016 US Presidential campaign (though this is a subjective observation and may be contradicted by response and tracking data).
  • The Remain campaign’s roster of ad agencies didn’t manage to land a piece of creative that captured the imaginations of the nation in the same way as we have sometimes seen in previous elections (though this says more about the difficulty of the brief & political context than it does about political advertising as a discipline).

The only comments made that really irked me were those of the Vote Leave campaign chiefs.

Paul Stephenson, Communications Director for Vote Leave, was reported to have said that “billboards are relics from another era”.  This couldn’t be more wrong.  In a world of ad-blocking and ad-free subscription services billboards are one of the few-remaining channels where you can guarantee reach and impact and you can buy them in the areas of the country where they’re most needed.  Indeed, the latest data from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising shows that outdoor advertising is the second most effective media channel (TV being the first).

And I was surprised by Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s Campaign Director, comments that his “advice to people who want to improve communications is hire physicists, not communications people“.  His tune seems to have changed dramatically since he told Campaign Magazine in February that he was looking to hire a “small, hungry and edgy agency that is not afraid to take risks and upset the government“.

So, to summarise, a quick skim of Garrahan’s article might lead people to think that political advertising is in trouble, however those who finish the article will see that the author – correctly in my view – concludes that whilst the tools being used have changed, the discipline remains very much intact and “campaigns have not stopped selling to voters”.  

It’s time to regulate political advertising

restore truthful politics - regulate political advertising change

A Change.org petition which calls for the regulation of political advertising has gathered 100,000+ signatures in the 4 days since it launched.

The petition was posted, by John Babarinde from Eastbourne, in response to some of the political advertising that ran during the EU referendum which he felt was clearly and deliberately misleading.

100,000 signatures might not seem like a vast number, but take it from someone who spends too much time pouring over the visitor statistics of a niche political advertising blog – this is significant!

Whenever I bore on about the need to regulate political advertising the reaction is usually along the lines of “ok maybe there’s not specific legislation, but I’m sure there’s a parliamentary committee or division of Ofcom (or something) that keeps an eye on these things”.

So to convince you of the lack of restriction, let me quote the Electoral Commission’s website on the issue of the regulation of the content of political campaigns’ materials and election broadcasts:

“In general, political campaign material in the UK is not regulated, and it is a matter for voters to decide on the basis of such material whether they consider it accurate or not. This includes the design of the material.

There is one exception to this, which is making or publishing a false statement of fact in relation to a candidate’s personal character or conduct (not their political views or conduct), unless there are reasonable grounds to believe the statement is true. The Commission does not regulate this rule however, and any allegations should be made to the police.

The Advertising Standards Authority regulates advertising, but non-broadcast political material whose principal function is to influence voters is exempt from its remit.”

In short: if you want to complain about the content of a campaign’s advertising you can only do so with your vote at the ballot box (or your chuntering on social media).

The current lack of regulation means that campaigns are free to make wild and unsubstantiated claims, such as Vote Leave’s headline slogan which promised £350 million worth of savings from the public purse if the UK voted to leave the EU.

The extent to which Vote Leave were aware that the £350 million claim was untrue prior to polling day can be seen when Matthew Elliot, CEO of Vote Leave, appeared before the House of Parliament Treasury Committee on 9th May (watch here from 14:45:20).  His justification for the figure is paper-thin and so poorly argued that it’s as close as you can get to an acknowledgement that it’s a fabrication.

And Chris Grayling MP, a leading member of the Vote Leave campaign, only a few days after the conclusion of the referendum, admitted that the figure was only “an aspiration”.

The Remain campaign aren’t remotely exempt from criticism.  Apart from anything else, the name of the official campaign – Britain Stronger in Europe – is misleading as the referendum was about European Union membership and not the question of whether the country would remain part of Europe.

The decision by Remain to continually refer to remaining in ‘Europe’ and not the ‘EU’ was deliberate and designed to escalate the discussion from one around a political and economic union to one of cultural identity.

There are vast numbers of reasons for legislating on political advertising, but my top five (each of which could be an essay in themselves) are as follows:

  1. False claims made during the campaign reduce the moral authority of the result.
  1. Untruthful assertions in political advertising perpetuates voters’ lack of trust in politics more generally.
  1. Lies from one political group dilutes the contentions of every political group (even ones that tell the truth) and debase the campaign discourse.
  1. It brings advertising more generally into disrepute as the public might fairly assume that commercial messages are similarly unscrupulous (when they are in fact carefully regulated).
  1. It puts media owners in a difficult position when there’s public outcry about the content of political ads as they have to decide for themselves whether to drop the advertisement (risking infringing on freedom of speech legislation in doing so).

It was not always the case that political advertising was completely unregulated.  Until 1999 political advertising was covered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for matters of ‘taste and decency’ and ‘the privacy of individuals’, but not ‘honesty’ and ‘truthful presentation’.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the body that writes the Advertising Code – decided that this ‘half-way-house’ arrangement wasn’t working, as partial regulation was leading to public confusion and was discrediting the standards held by commercial advertisers.

The CAP felt that either political advertising should conform to all of the ASA’s normal advertising standards or none.  A 2003 Electoral Commission report into the issue opted for ‘none’.

The ASA has a justifiable concern about ruling on political ads; as an undemocratic body it would face a legitimacy deficit when intervening in elections.  A previous ASA Director was quoted as saying:

“Can you imagine the situation if during the course of an election we are asked to adjudicate on an advertisement on a matter of truthfulness. Say it takes a week for us to judge on it and in the meantime the party making the false claim wins the election. Are we then to rule that they lied their way into power?”

Given the history of the issue, I don’t think for a moment it will be will be easy (or even possible) to create a perfect regulatory solution.  But the status quo, where the Electoral Commission, the ASA, the Houses of Parliament, Ofcom and any other body you might care to name refuse to take responsibility, is unacceptable.

I don’t advocate reducing political organisations’ ability to make powerful or controversial claims.  Nor am I subscriber to the belief that campaigns should be ‘positive’.  I’m not even suggesting that those elected should be held accountable to promises made in their advertising at election time.

It’s just very clear to me that there should be a formal process that enables citizens to challenge claims – often positioned as facts – made by political campaigns which they feel to be untrue or misleading.

To use a well-worn political advertising refrain: it’s time for a change.

 

 

Election campaigning: how to spend it

Benedict Pringle article in Campaign how to spend it

On Wednesday this week the Electoral Commission published the details of money spent by political parties on General Election 2015.  I’ve written an article analysing the relative merits of their expenditure for advertising industry trade magazine Campaign, which you can read here.

General Election 2015: review of the political posters

The 2015 general election race has been electric.  As neither of the main parties has managed to capture the majority of the public’s imagination, both Labour and the Conservatives have been unrelenting in their battle to take the lead.  And as there is a high likelihood that of one of the less significant parties  will end up winning a place in government, the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru have all had something to play for right up until the close of polls.

The political parties have used political advertising in all its forms to try and steer the media’s election narrative, fire-up their own supporters, interfere with the oppositions’ strategies and influence undecided voters.

The digital campaigns – largely email-led – have increased in sophistication and effectivess.  And for the first time we have seen political parties, particularly the Conservatives, spending decent sums of money on promoting Facebook videos and buying YouTube pre-roll adverising.

However the most romantic and iconic form  of political advertising in Britain remains the poster.

Regardless of whether the posters are plastered across marginal consitutiences – as the Conservatives have done this time around – or whether they’re deployed as giant, full colour press-releases at campaign events, the media and the public can’t help but discuss them.

There’s no space for bluff and bluster in a poster.  The requirement for parties to distill and refine their message to fit in a 48-sheet means that a quick survey of any elections’ posters will tell you everything you need to know about the battle that has taken place.

Let’s see what they had to say this time around.

The SNP Boogeyman

Miliband in Salmond Pocket Conservative Party poster

In every election there are one or two truly iconic images that live long in our political memories.  I strongly suspect this poster, which shows the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband sitting in the top pocket of former SNP leader Alex Salmond, will be the one we’re talking about for years to come.

What makes the poster so impressive is that they have managed to bring to life the possibility that a vote for Labour could help usher the SNP into Downing St without even using a headline.

In one foul swoop it damned Miliband’s leadership credentials, excited the SNP activist base in Scotland and distracted Labour from their NHS-led campaign and forced them onto the back foot.

The Battle for the NHS

Labour poster - recruit more nurses

Labour’s advertising in 2015 centred squarely on the NHS; it was the 2nd most salient issue amongst the public (after immigration) and as Labour were seen as the most credible party to defend it the campaign chose itself.

This execution was the best of a bad bunch.

The image of thousands of nurse-style fob watches is fairly eye-catching and the sub-header announcing that applications for these new jobs will open the day after polling day is a clever piece of copywriting.

The strapline “It’s time to care. It’s time for a Labour government” also neatly encapsulates their wider pitch to the electorate.

Spot the difference

Green Party spot the difference end of page 3 sun newspaper

In late January 2015 The Sun Newspaper, in a slightly bizarre PR stunt, encouraged the nation to believe that they had decided to bring an end to featuring topless glamour models on its Page 3 (something which later turned out not to be the case).

The Green Party capitalised on the moment to highlight the fact that their party had been campaigning to end the sexist behaviour of the publisher for time by running this ‘spot the difference’ execution.

The advert shows the leaders of Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP all sycophantically lining up to take part in The Sun Newspapers launch of their coverage of the 2014 World Cup; it implies the leaders were de-facto endorsing the chauvinistic practice.

This is placed in stark contrast to Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, who is pictured wearing a t-shirt campaigning against the Sun’s daily publication of partially naked girls.

This activity, placing the Green Party as the anti-Westminster option and a champion of women, helped to stimulate a surge of new membership recruits and jump in the polls.

Backing our Boys

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UKIP’s audience are largely blue-collar, elderly, white and male voters.  UKIP have salience amongst groups who feel forgotten by modern Britain and worry about the nation’s reduced global status; this emotive poster outlining UKIP’s policy of improved provision for the military resonated strongly with such people.

The visual of a soldier begging for money using a helmet is very provocative and the quietly raging tone of the headline encapsulates the sentiment that UKIP’s disgruntled supporters feel towards the mainstream parties.

Stuck in the middle without a clue

Lib Dem Look left look right

The Liberal Democrats, having spent the last 5 years as the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservative Party, were in the deeply unenviable position of not being able to attack the record of the government or credibly lay claim to any of its successes.

Their only strategic option was to position themselves as a moderating force on both Labour and the Conservatives.  It’s a creatively baron proposition and the result has been some fairly dire advertising.

The Lib Dems have run a series of posters using the line: ‘look left, look right, then cross’; the above advert features Ed Balls and George Osborne, two giant and unpopular characters from Labour and the Conservatives respectively.

The “Ajockalypse”

SNP Let's lock the tories out of number 10

The “Ajockalypse” refers to the possible phenomenon of the SNP winning every single Westminster parliamentary seat in Scotland and this poster brilliantly summarises the pitch the SNP have been giving which makes it a very likely scenario.

Many people in Scotland felt badly affronted by the Conservative Party’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum the previous year and the SNP have encouraged them to see the Westminster General Election as a chance to exact some revenge.  The transformation of the ‘0’ in No. 10 Downing St’s door into a lock is neat shortcut for that message.

Against All Austerity

Plaid Cymru will end austerity poster

Plaid Cymru have had the least impact of the 7 main political parties.  Their message didn’t permeate outside of Wales as the likelihood of the Welsh nationals influencing the final outcome was minimal.

Plaid Cymru used this illustrated style in the majority of its communications and whilst perfectly aesthetic, it’s not particularly arresting.  The edgy, blocky font and the handmade nature of the graphics gives the poster a nice sense of protest, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to make waves in Westminster.

Brands and election-themed gimmicks

Andrew Neil Benedict Pringle Daily Politics

Andrew Neil election gimmicks

Election themed cupcakes

Earlier today the BBC Daily Politics kindly invited me on to their show to discuss election-themed products and promotions.

You can watch here from 55.41, but the gist of what I said is as follows:

There’s 2 reasons why brands use election gimmicks.

The first is a tactic called Newsjacking and the second is a strategy around increasing relevance.

‘Newsjacking’ is about anticipating stories that journalists will already by writing and creating great content for them to use.

The Daily Politics programme I was on was a classic example.

The marketing departments and PR agencies of these companies knew media outlets would be running stories on the mad things brands are doing around election time and decided to try and earn their brand or product some coverage.

We were newsjacked.

The second reason brands do it is because there’s lots of research to suggest that ‘relevance’ is an important driver in people’s decision making.

It’s a slightly intangible thing and people don’t agree as to how it works exactly, but almost everyone agrees that it does work.

If your brand or product can seem ‘relevant’ to whatever else is going on in the consumer’s life, people seem to attach more value to you.

This is the reason why brands gather around big marquee moments in the year.  Whether it’s the World Cup, going Back to School, Christmas or Valentine’s Day.  The more relevant your brand can seem to an occasion the more likely it is people are going to choose you over the competition.

It gets consumers thinking “this product is for people like me”.

We see this a lot in politics.  A key driver in how people vote is how ‘relevant’ they think the party or candidate is to them.  It’s the reason why politicians put aside their expensive suits when they’re knocking on doors in their constituencies and instead don some dodgy chinos and Next Directory sweater.

Digital tactics in 2015 general election

FT article digital tactics in general election battle benedict pringle

Robert Cookson at The Financial Times has written a nice article on the digital aspect of the 2015 general election campaigns.

When I spoke to Robert I gave him my point of view that the scale of the paid-for digital campaigns in this election is unprecedented in the UK and that political parties – particularly the Conservatives – are getting around the ban on TV advertising by using YouTube and Facebook videos.

However, pre-roll isn’t in this instance the poor relation of TV.  Indeed, using paid-for online video is in many ways much better than TV as you can target internet users who display certain online behaviours or fit certain demographics. This allows parties to focus resources on the audiences and locations that are most likely to deliver them important votes.

As this is a political communication innovation I suspect there will be a gut instinct amongst some to try and contain or ban it.

This would be a mistake.

Advertising is an important way for political parties to communicate with voters.  Currently political parties have to overly rely on mass media outlets in order to disseminate their campaign messages which inevitably leads to distortion; the emergence of digital media has been an important shift in enabling politicians to communicate directly with the electorate and we should avoid any moves to curtail it.

However, as a quid pro quo, the political parties should agree to a new regulatory framework around all advertising in order to prevent the broadcasting of misleading or offensive information.  More detail on this can be found here.