No one interested in marketing could fail to appreciate a British general election. I do not disguise my own political affiliation (broadly described as “anything but Labour”) but I will both try to be even-handed in my observations on the campaigns and to stick to subjects which have some bearing on my main theme. That sweeps up not merely the art of marketing but things to do with privacy, data protection and information security. My sweeper commitment is to try and help my non-UK readers understand something of British culture to the extent that it affects those who do business here. That gives me a pretty wide range.
Let’s start with Labour, and a nice crossover between marketing and the misuse of confidential information. Last week, Labour sent 250,000 leaflets to women whose names appear to have come from an NHS database of cancer patients. They followed that up by writing to hundreds of doctors, using their work e-mail addresses only available from an NHS database, and urging them to sign a letter of protest about alleged Conservative plans for NHS cuts. The fact that the said plans bear no relation to anything announced or even hinted at by the Conservatives is neither here nor there – misrepresenting your opponent’s position is something all the parties do – but using contact information which is only available to the government, and which is confidential, is not on. Any marketing benefit was immediately wiped out by the adverse comment from all sides.
Still with Labour, there was a fine bit of inadvertent honesty by Yvette Cooper, the Minister for Work and Pensions. Sitting in a televised press conference, for an audience which she obviously felt was beneath her, she wrote a note to Treasury Secretary Liam Byrne reading “It’s clearly second division today – presumably that’s why we’re allowed to do this?” When I first heard the story, I felt slightly sorry for her that her note was captured on camera. On reflection, I decided that she deserved all she got – the government of which she is a member has snooped and probed and poked their noses into every aspect of our lives, and it is fitting that Cooper should be caught out like this, just as illiberal former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith deserved to have her expenses claims uncovered. Cooper is probably right to characterise herself as second division (think “Home Information Packs” to understand why) but I cannot imagine that her husband Ed Balls, appearing at the same press conference, was thrilled to be put in the same category. The marketing message: the same media as allow you to get your intended message out so widely work just as well when your message is meant to be private.
On then to the Liberal Democrats. Marketing the Lib Dems poses particular challenges anyway, since no one is much interested in what they have to say, even now when they may well find themselves holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. Their one selling point is Vince Cable, the only man who was able retrospectively to shape his pre-recession utterances into anything approaching a prediction. They took a pop at the Conservatives last week with a picture of a bomb endorsed with the assertion that “You’d pay £389 more a year in VAT under the Conservatives”. Cable was challenged in an interview as to how the Lib Dems had arrived at the figure of £389, “Not £390, not £388, not £388.50”. Not only was he unable to provide any basis whatsoever for the figure, but he was forced to concede that nothing separated the Lib Dems’ position on VAT from that of the Conservatives – both have left open the possibility that they will increase it.
Given that the alleged sagacity and honesty of St Vince is about the only electoral asset that the Lib Dems have got (apart from the fact that voting for “Nobody” seems an appealing idea to many), it was a particularly crass piece of marketing to put out such a picture at a time when every figure and every assertion is bound to be subject to close analysis. If the Lib Dems are not honest, then they are nothing. Vince Cable is now known as Vince Fable, and the Lib Dems’ one distinguishing feature is blown away in one stupid advertisement.
On to the Conservatives, who had it in their power to present a crisp, clear set of policies, leaving transparently reasonable caveats as to the matters which prudence suggested should be left open. I ought to be an easy target for Conservative electioneering – the traditional commitment to small government and taxes as low as possible would be enough for me when added to the assumption that the financial markets would approve and that other basic components of government – education, crime-fighting, defence and the health service – would recover. I have not a clue what their policies amount to under any of these headings. So far as I am concerned, all their expensive gurus and intellectual think-tanks have failed the test which I set out in my recent article Marketing: put yourself in the position of the putative punter before publishing.
Apart from that, they have two main marketing problems – an unforgivably casual way with statistics and their failure to control the throwbacks in the party who have not got the message that things have moved on. As to statistics, Brown and Labour were caught lying three times in a few days (Brown admitted to Parliament that he had falsified Iraq spending figures given to Chilcot, was publicly corrected by the Office of National Statistics on net immigration, and was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw a poster on crime statistics). Cameron has correctly identified that voter antipathy towards politicians has overtaken mere apathy, and that political dishonesty and the assumption that “they are all as bad as each other” are major factors contributing to that antipathy.
How would you meet that as a marketing challenge? If it were me, I would make sure that no fact, assertion or assumption came out of my campaign which had not been checked rigorously, even if that meant passing up apparently easy points. The details of every tit-for-tat exchange on specifics are forgotten as soon as the day is gone; the overall impression of honesty or its opposite survives. The Conservatives have been caught out misusing (that is, falsifying) statistics on violent crime and teenage pregnancy rates. No-one will remember the issues where these false facts were used, but we will all have come away thinking that all politicians are the same. What a missed opportunity to be different where it counts.
The rabid utterances of the throwbacks are harder to deal with. There was the old buffer who complained of having to travel second-class with the proles, and the one whose views on gays staying at B&Bs failed to strike an entirely modern note. I am not impressed either by Douglas Hogg’s assurance that the moat which the taxpayer cleaned up for him was not a moat at all but “a broad dyke which becomes smelly” (you get those in second-class railway carriages, too). You only need a few like that to lose 1% of the vote, not necessarily because the voters disagree with the sentiment (I am right with you, sir, on travelling with the dogburger-slurping, “you’ll-never-guess-what-me-and-wayne-did-last-night” classes), but because the overall impression, once again, is of a party which is not what the electorate wants. Clear impressions sell political parties, just as clear impressions sell software and law firms.