Predicting the advertising campaigns of general election 2017

Benedict Pringle, founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk, predicts the lines of attack that the political parties will use in their communications and explains why the campaigns will avoid introducing new ideas and will instead focus on reminding the right sort of voters of things that they already think.

Jeremy Bullmore once wrote that “people build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon” in order to make the point that brands are subjective things and the public’s perceptions of them are constructed piecemeal and over time.

This is as true of political brands as it as of washing powders.

However, there hasn’t been much time for voters to do much proverbial foraging, nor are there many proverbial policy twigs for the electorate to find.

None of the leaders of the mainstream UK-wide political parties has been in post for longer than two years and the parties have had very little time since the last general election to develop or communicate their policy platforms.

As this is the case, the clamour from some in party headquarters to spend media money on telling voters everything they think they ‘ought to know’ will be significant.

This would be a mistake.

While there has been comparatively little time for voters to get to know the new political landscape in Britain, given there is a simply massive amount of stimuli, people are able to build up perceptions very quickly.

For example, post-Brexit the public clearly picked up pretty quickly that the Liberal Democrats had taken a distinctive tack; its share-of-vote surged in each of the five parliamentary by-elections since.

And as the stimuli is often the sort that encourages an emotional response, voters' perceptions tend to get hardwired.

The speed with which voters make up their minds – and the stubbornness with which they stick to them – mean that the chances of one of the leaders making a first impression, or changing one, between now and polling day using advertising are very slight. Or, as Lynton Crosby says, “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”.

The campaign strategists worth their salt will accept that their bed is to a large extent made for them and will be spending their time – and the time of their agencies – assiduously working out which preconceptions to remind voters of.

The key to deciding what prejudices to reinforce, among which segments of the electorate, lies in a three step research process.

The first step is to understand which voters are persuadable and likely to vote in a seat that’s winnable; it’s no use targeting advertising at people who are already predisposed to voting for an opponent, or at someone living in an unwinnable seat or who is very unlikely to turn out.

If they are very likely to support you, but less likely to vote, the research suggests that a knock on the door from a neighbour is much more likely to get them to the polling station than something like a poster.

If you look at the diagram below, political advertising that seeks to convince undecided voters should be used to target the audience labelled ‘persuade’.

The second step is to understand which issues these voters care about most – the issues that are likely to make them vote one way or another. And the third step is to gauge on which of those issues your party has a reputation for competence.

Once such an analysis is complete, it is possible to plot the various issues on a matrix and the subjects on which to make an attack becomes very clear.

Helpfully for the potency of my predictive powers, Opinium Research has already conducted such an analysis. This research is on a representative sample of the electorate, rather than the particular segments of voters that each party has deemed to be persuadable, but as a basis for this exercise it will do nicely.

Provided that those devising electoral strategy for the political parties are looking at similar data and accept the conventional campaigning wisdom – despite the unusual circumstances of a snap election – my predictions for the issues that the parties will pursue are as follows:

The Conservative Party will likely – and unsurprisingly – go hard on EU-related issues. It is also of note that polls show that Theresa May is by far and away the most convincing leader and currently has a 39% lead over Corbyn as ‘best prime minister’. As a result of these two things, the Tories will try and find a way to conflate the issues of leadership and Brexit. It won’t be the first time the Conservative Party have tried such an approach.

We’ve already seen Conservative messaging around ‘competence vs. chaos’, which feels a little reheated from 2015 and untenable given the party's massive poll lead, so I expect it to move on from this before long.

UKIP will likely make its pitch to voters on the issue of immigration; it has got previous in not pulling any punches on the topic and will hope to use it as a wedge between itself and the Conservatives.

The Labour Party will, once again, focus its attacks on healthcare and the NHS. Given its dire ratings on every other top five issue and its deficit on leadership credentials, it really has very little choice (or chance of victory).

And the Liberal Democrats will attempt to make this a referendum on Brexit; it will position itself as the only party which can hold a future Theresa May government to account. This may well involve a resuscitation of Project Fear; advertising which poses suggestions as to what a hard Brexit might mean for the UK will be particularly provocative in Remain voting Tory seats.

Ascertaining the issues that are salient amongst a voter segment and knowing whether or not a party is regarded as credible on it requires some strategic rigour and organisational discipline. However, finding a way to remind the electorate of something that they already believe – in a way that is surprising and newsworthy – is very difficult indeed.

Because it is so hard to do – and therefore is an irregular feature of a British general election – when a party gets it right, it can be catalytic for its fortunes.

It will be interesting to see if these predictions prove correct, but far more impressive will be if one of the parties can create advertising that electrifies the election – and lives long in the political memory – in such a short space of time.

Benedict Pringle is the founder of politicaladvertising.co.uk. He tweets @benedictpringle. You can read his latest columns here.

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