Advertising General Election Conservative Party

A disaster for the Conservatives – a disaster for brutal simplicity of thought

By Brian Millar | co-founder

June 11, 2017 | 8 min read

S_________ and s_________ leadership. Is there anybody in the UK who can’t fill in those blanks?

theresa may strong and stable

By most classical brand tracking measures, the Conservative campaign was a great success. They achieved salience. They got a clear message across (we knew it was a clear message, because Theresa always said, ‘Let me be clear…’). They offered something we all wanted and needed. It led to a result so horrible that the UK news has been like watching every Epic Fail compilation on YouTube back to back.

For all of its single mindedness, Strong and Stable Leadership got annoying after about two days of constant repetition. After five weeks, I felt like Tom Cruise when Dustin Hoffman was trailing around after him in Rain Man, saying ‘Gotta go to K Mart. Gotta go to K Mart.’ I wasn’t alone.

It’s said that Lynton Crosby, the man behind the Conservative campaign, was delighted to hear that the Twitterati were bored of the slogan; it meant that the message was getting through. The Conservatives have long been served by M&C Saatchi [which wasn't involved in this year's campaign], but which has taken a previous approach in advocating the ‘brutal simplicity of thought.’ It’s a strategy that worked well when advertising was just a landgrab for a small piece of somebody’s attention.

Except that’s not how things work online. We lead much richer emotional lives in social media than we do in front of the television. We’re the heroes of our Facebook feed, we’re pundits on Twitter, we’re foppish aesthetes on Instagram. What worked in occasional TV campaigns, posters glimpsed out of the corners of our eyes and quarter-page newspaper ads was repetition. It was brutal, it was simple, and frankly (speaking as an ex-copywriter) it didn’t require that much thought.

Online, the ‘rinse and repeat’ approach quickly outstays its welcome. The shirt ad that follows you around goes from being dull to irritating to enraging in about five repetitions. Our research has shown that the smartest brands – and political operators – aren’t going for share of mind any more – they’re going for share of emotion.

Take last year’s Leave campaign. Last Friday at Nudgestock, Leave’s master strategist Dominic Cummings explained how they won against all the odds. Underneath Leave’s ‘Take back control’ slogan, there was a massive range of data-driven messaging in social media. The campaign used Facebook’s segmentations to experiment with a range of ads aimed at around seven million people, testing and refining propositions and tones of voice tailored to the specific personalities of each segment. Then, in the last week, Leave piled all its remaining money onto Facebook, flooding it with their most successful work. You can read about it in extreme detail on Dominic’s blog.

This time around, of course all the parties were doing ‘dark ads’ on Facebook, aimed at issues important to specific groups. But, from what I’ve seen – and one of the issues here is that it’s very hard to keep track of targeted ads – the Conservative work was touched by the curse of brutal simplicity of thought, ringing the changes on the same proposition in the same tone, making it dull and repetitive.

conservatives facebook

Strength vs instability… where have we heard this before?

conservatives facebook

ICYMI, here it is again…

conservatives 3

In a radical departure, Tories skip ‘stable’ from headline. No wonder this stuff took 4 days to make.

Our research shows that people love four kinds of content: stuff that’s Funny, Useful, Beautiful and Inspiring. We’re also learning that the smartest online communicators do all four. While the Tories banged away as if they were doing a poster and telly campaign on Facebook, Labour had a far more multifaceted approach.

Here they are being funny:

And here they are being inspiring:

They provided a useful polling station finder:

And finally, they finished on something beautiful to get the vote out:

There’s evidence that Labour massively outspent the Tories on Facebook in the last days of the election, suggesting a Leave-style approach of testing messages and then piling in behind the most effective ones.

national statistics

Source, based on a sample of 4803 volunteers

But more importantly, they spread their message and targeted it to get the widest possible share of emotion. More information is emerging about the Tories’ social media campaign: it was slow, taking four days to produce ads. Sam Jeffers of told the Telegraph: "The Tory Party was narrowly focused in its message and the number of places it was trying reach. They prided themselves on their message and focus, and failed to reach into the area they needed to."

Of course, elections are not won and lost for a single reason. However, it’s emerging that the Tories and their agencies were fighting a TV and poster campaign, slow, single minded and repetitive, on a platforms that favour the fast, the insightful and the multifaceted. It wasn’t just geographical areas they failed to reach. It was emotional ones.

Out-of-date ideas die quickly in Westminster. The Tories will doubtless be shedding their social media strategy even more quickly than they shed their leadership. Soho seems to cling a lot harder onto outdated practices. It’s time that brutal simplicity of thought gave way to smarter, more agile strategies.

Brian Millar is co-founder of The Emotional Intelligence Agency, an Internet data and strategy company. He will be talking about Share of Emotion at the Cannes Lions festival on Friday 23 June. Follow him on Twitter @arthurascii

You can read Jim Compton-Hall's counter-view on this matter here

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