"The Daily Mail trumpeted the Conservatives’ success in raising £1.5 million in the first week of the campaign, but Obama could raise that between sneezing and blowing his nose..."For those of us who treat elections as a spectator sport, the general election campaign is bubbling up nicely. But for a politics-as-sports fan like me, it lacks something in comparison with presidential campaigns in the United States. Sure, we’ve got our own ‘Yes we can’ (albeit ‘probably not’) dynamic going on. And the debates have been fun. But unlike the US, we don’t get to enjoy candidates’ paid-for advertising campaigns.
In particular, we’re missing out on juicy attack ads—30 seconds of dramatic narration enumerating an opponent’s real, implied and imagined transgressions, character flaws, voting record etc.
There are Party Election Broadcasts of course, but PEBs don’t give the same thrill as the 30 second spot. In the heat of battle where is David Cameron’s soft-on-crime Willie Horton? Where is the shady support group ready to step up and challenge Nick Clegg’s Vietnam War record?
Consider too, the people who are rendered redundant by the absence of paid ads in our election culture: the undergraduates, pensioners and other would-be focus group types; the political scientists and grad students with papers to write; the ad-watch and fact-check bloggers. Think of the atrophying creativity of our best advertising people.
And spare a thought for the wasted youth of our frustrated YouTube parody-makers. How do you parody a PEB?
What would this general election campaign look like if candidates ran paid ads? With other 4000 candidates, if every single one ran ad campaigns on TV it would be chaotic and unbearably parochial, but at the party level, with three competitive candidates, a trailing incumbent and two parties emphasizing a break with the current administration but also less likely to form a coalition with each other, conditions are ripe for a fantastically negative campaign.
And given the brevity of the UK campaign, the concentration of attacks would be spectacular. It is interesting to imagine what British campaign ads would look like. Would we see Daisy girl reinvented to remind us of the dangers of European integration? Would Gordon Brown emphasize his superiority over Nick Clegg in taking care of business at 3am? Or would ads be more inimitably British? Picture Gordon Brown as Stevens from Remains of the Day—surely a creative advertising type could take that idea and run with it?
More importantly, would campaign ads be good for the UK? And especially, would it make more people vote? Negative campaigning gets a bad press, but recent research in the US suggests that exposure to attack ads can sometimes mobilize voters to turn out and is often a source of substantive and documented information.
Negative messages stimulate stronger affective responses, are more memorable and signal to people that something important is at stake. They also help voters to differentiate between candidates—an important issue for less sophisticated citizens who say the candidates are all the same and therefore don’t vote.
In many ways the information environment available to voters during UK campaigns is very good. However, there is one area where politics is yet to fully penetrate: the commercial break. This is a niche that campaign ads were literally born to fill and might be able to reach less politically engaged voters who, even now, may be surprised to learn that there is an election coming up.
Rather than confining politicians to the news and shopping centres, why not unleash them on people waiting for Desperate Housewives or Masterchef to come back on? Since we can now access our preferred entertainment so efficiently, people who choose to avoid information about the election can do so with little effort. Running ads on Dave or E4 might just get more fans of Friends repeats informed and engaged in the electoral process.
It wouldn’t be cheap. Airtime at commercial rates isn’t cheap. At 2008 prices, a 30 second spot run nationally on ITV during Coronation Street would cost £75K. With the Electoral Commission’s limit of £20 million on campaign spending this is probably not a cost effective use of resources, especially given that there is no systematic evidence that negative advertising actually works electorally: small dents in an opponent’s support are offset by diminution of support for the sponsor of an attack.
Yet this doesn’t deter candidates and parties around the world, who continue to run negative ads in hope of striking it lucky. Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy Girl, the most famous and perhaps successful ad of all time, ran just once, albeit in the pre-multi-channel, pre-internet era when audiences were effectively captive.
Reaching audiences in our current fractured media environment is expensive and difficult—which is why we see such enthusiasm for experimentation with internet communication tools. Cost effectiveness is clearly an issue for parties in the UK, where raising campaign funds is more difficult than in the States: The Daily Mail trumpeted the Conservatives’ success in raising £1.5 million in the first week of the campaign, but Obama could raise that between sneezing and blowing his nose.
Dr Jon Sullivan