The ad-free election

The ad-free election

A general election used to be good for our industry, but now party political messaging has become a largely private affair.

A general election used to be very good for our industry.

Among all the dissection of polls and policies, there’d be discussion and analysis of the advertising campaigns: the powerful creative punch socked from hoardings around the country. And agencies were called in to advise not just on execution but on the shaping of strategy. So advertising was a key part of the national conversation in the run-up to polling day. Advertising helped confer power. That made our industry seem important.

And, of course, a general election meant Campaign had lots of big, bold, controversial ads to critique.

This week’s election has afforded very little of that, and not simply because of the surprise and speed involved. Party political messaging has become a largely private affair, carefully focused on the swing seats and floating voters, with laser-targeting via social media, specifically Facebook.

Recent history – David Cameron’s surprise 2015 victory and Donald Trump’s capture of the White House last autumn – suggests success lies in geotargeting campaigning to those constituencies where voting patterns are not entrenched and then creating specific messages there for niche audiences.

For now, this is a relatively fresh strategic approach and there are significant first-mover advantages to be made for the parties that get it right.

But there’s no doubt that this micro-targeting has contributed to a large-scale lack of clarity over each party’s main policies. Those of us seeing any advertising at all on our social feeds are receiving selective messages that can be wholly different to those seen by others, even living under the same roof. No wonder there’s little common ground for shared conversation. 

And I’m going to make a guess that the quality of what is being seen – those dozens, perhaps hundreds, of segmented messages – is lower than would be demanded if the forum was a more public one. 

No wonder, then, that research company Toluna found that most of us can’t remember a single piece of political advertising this time round: there’s hardly been any. What there has been has been tightly targeted and private and probably less impactful in its creative conceit.

All of this matters if it adds to political apathy (turnout predictions are low) and confusion. And it matters because there are learnings here for brands. Tactical, segmented, digitally delivered campaigns on social platforms can work on undecided voters in a speedy election. But it seems they’re failing to deliver brand-building messages that can unite the individual threads of conversation and corral any real consensus of thought. Brands take note.

Claire Beale is global editor-in-chief of Campaign.      

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