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2024 Predictions: Benedict Pringle
Benedict runs politicaladvertising.co.uk, which regularly reviews political ad campaigns in the UK and beyond. He works in advertising.
This issue was guest-written by Benedict, looking forward to what we’ll see from parties over the next 15 months (some people this week have been predicting an autumn 2023 election - please no!). So, without further ado, let’s hand over to Benedict…
Over the last fifteen years, advertising has played a role in achieving more political objectives than was previously possible.
It’s a significant reason why it’s felt like there’s been a revolution in the conduct of election campaigns. But I think we’ve now entered more of a steady state from a strategic perspective.
In modern election campaigns, it’s now standard practice to use ads to steer the media narrative, persuade floating voters in key seats, test messages, find supporters, raise money, encourage advocacy, register voters and get out the vote.
But some contextual factors mean the way parties will try to deliver against these objectives using advertising will be distinctive in the next election. Here’s how I think that might happen.
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1. Running digital ads that don’t look like ads
Since the last election, the ad load on social networks has increased. When users are served more ads, their subconscious ad avoidance technique becomes more honed.
This means well-polished but creatively unremarkable ads are destined to be scrolled over or skipped.
To combat this, political parties will try different tactics to make their adverts look as if they’ve not been touched by the hands of marketing professionals.
For the 2019 election, the Conservatives deployed “boomer memes” to generate earned media, but this time around, we’ll see parties using deliberately lo-fi production values in paid media as a way of regularly making their paid content seem organic.
The USA is way ahead of the UK in using this tactic, but I’ve started to see some attempts by British parties, and I expect this trend to continue.
They will also try and cut through in your social feeds by using influencer marketing techniques. Influencers with big followings in important demographics will work with political parties to co-create and disseminate content.
With more people actively avoiding traditional news, parties won’t be able to rely on newspaper coverage or clips running on the evening news programmes to get their message across. Using paid influencers can help fill those gaps in reach while making the message feel like it’s editorial instead a paid ad.
For example, I can imagine an Instagrammer or TikToker who posts parenting content doing a video interview with a party on their early years childcare policy.
But more prevalent will be political parties’ attempts to get their activists to engage on WhatsApp group chats and community Facebook Groups. Creating election content that a group will welcome in a closed or semi-closed online environment is challenging. Still, it won’t stop parties attempting to deploy micro-influencer strategies in their highest priority seats.
2. It will pay to invest in targeting
In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives prioritised reaching as many voters as possible, sometimes at the expense of targeting. For example, they bought homepage takeovers on the Daily Mail and YouTube, which gets lots of eyeballs but reach a broad audience.
In electoral situations where there is an issue that resonates with a wide range of voters, prioritising reach over targeting (which adds expense) can be effective because you can communicate with potential supporters who may not fit into specific demographic or behavioural targeting criteria but are still likely to be interested in the issue.
As it stands, it doesn’t seem like one dominant issue will differentiate the parties, so it will pay to target groups of like-minded voters with tailored messages that are likely to resonate.
3. The base will get more attention
Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn had a significant impact on the base of both parties in the 2017 and 2019 general elections.
The primary beneficiary of this was the Conservatives; plenty of people were propelled to the polling booth either by a desire to get Brexit done or oppose Corbyn (or both).
But Corbyn’s message also inspired a hard core of support for Labour. And the salience of Brexit meant people who were firmly pro-EU would turn out to vote against the Conservatives.
Voters’ perception of high stakes and the desire to support their preferred side can lead to increased turnout. The 2017 and 2019 U.K. general elections, held in the aftermath of a divisive referendum, had the two highest turnouts since 1997.
Without a single issue that can be relied on to compel less committed citizens to cast a vote, and with Labour and the Conservatives having leaders who inspire less passion than in was the case in 2019, getting people to turnout will be more demanding and, therefore, more critical.
Parties will find issues that motivate their core supporters and use advertising to create a sense of urgency.
The Conservative Party’s attack line on Labour as “the party of protest” is designed to fire up their base. Given Starmer's coolheaded, process-driven persona, such an accusation seems left-field to the floating voter. Still, it delights Conservative partisans as it’s how they think Starmer is perceived.
4. There will be a battle for “Best Prime Minister”
Polling shows that Starmer has a slight lead over Sunak regarding who would be the best Prime Minister (though both have room to improve on measures like strength, trust and likeability).
Given the evidence that there is some degree of relationship between the approval of a party leader and the share of the vote that a party receives - and leadership approval is a metric that tends to fluctuate - both parties will see it as a battleground.
We haven’t seen a party go “toe to toe” on leadership for a while. The last time there was such an even matchup of leaders going into a general election was in 2010 when Labour was led by Gordon Brown and the Conservatives by David Cameron.
Parties will use advertising to convey a personal narrative for their leader and attempt to define their opponent in conventional ways. But I also expect them to try and develop a meme-able persona.
From Donald Trump dancing on stage to Joe Biden enjoying ice cream on the campaign trail, having aspects of a leader’s character which supporters can use to generate and share content is an increasingly crucial aspect of a modern election campaign.
5. Parties will need to do the basics brilliantly
So far, I’ve focused on contextual considerations for this election rather than creating a playbook.
Because advertising now plays such a fundamental role in a successful general election campaign, the sheer number of objectives advertising serves means that even doing brilliant basics takes a lot of work.
As a result, building solid foundations will need to be prioritised over developing a strong GIF game.
So, I tip my hat to the folks working on the campaigns. I’m excited to see what they come up with over the next year or so!
Our next issue will be on the strategic and tactical approaches to running ads for by-election campaign (you wait ages for one, then three show up at once, so it seems like a worthy topic).
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See you next time!
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