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Style Versus Substance? - A critique of the latest Better Together and Yes Campaign ads for the independence referendum

Giles Moffatt, group managing director at Saint Johns Agency, takes a look at the latest ad campaigns from both the Yes campaign and Better Together, ahead of the independence referendum in Scotland.

So here, finally, after two years of this neverending neverendum, are the first of two ‘broadcasts’ from the rival camps.

They were always going to fall under scrutiny – this has been one of the longest-running, impassioned debates of recent times.

I’ll start off by saying it’s actually irrelevant what people think of these two films creatively – it’s not a beauty parade or an exercise in cinematography. But, let us consider the online criticisms for a moment.

The Better Together film has sparked a minor online furore, for being patronising and sexist, and the critics have a point. Although the Cybernats will have been all over it like a rash, fanning the flames, you can’t deny that the execution is stilted and condescending in many places.

The narrative, far from being brutally simple, is a brain-dump of almost every key message the No campaign has used. I sense the hand of more than one person in the scripting.

It feels gloomy, downbeat, even slightly deflated. And all set in a crummy little kitchen like the Scottish Blend commercials of old.

Yes Scotland’s film, in marked contrast, has immense feel-good factor, was clearly written by copywriters rather than policy-makers or researchers, and is infinitely more inspiring. It has passion.

They have also taken a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book and consistently used ‘One Great Thing’ as their anthem. It’s slick, it’s polished, it’s proper advertising.

It’s been shot well. It makes me feel proud to be Scottish. And the strategy isn’t showing, as it weaves in subtle messages – childcare, free bus passes for the elderly, strong industry sectors – with a light touch.

As a piece of film, I prefer it. As will most people no doubt.

And here’s the rub. The difference between the two films sums up the very essence of this debate.

On one side we have positivity, potential, and lots of wonderful promises. All very easy to warm to.

On the other side a boring reality-check - a moment to pause and consider some very real questions. Spoil-sport stuff.

What happens on the 18th of September will depend on two things: whether undecided voters are seduced by the promises and optimism of the arguments for independence, or whether they can forgive the apparent dullness and negativity of the No campaign.

You’ve also got to consider the purpose of these broadcasts, when comparing the two. One is aimed at everyone. The other is aimed squarely at women.

Polls have consistently shown that women are more likely to be undecided. Research has also shown that women are inherently more prudent and considered in their approach to this debate, whereas men are more gung-ho and fired-up about it.

So, the strategy behind the much-maligned No film is broadly right, even though the execution is on the lame side.

With just three weeks to go, boring though it might sound, it’s probably time to get real.

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