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No ho ho: How to navigate a difficult Christmas for advertisers

25 Nov 2019  |  Nick Manning 
No ho ho: How to navigate a difficult Christmas for advertisers

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas could be a disappointment for brands this year, writes Nick Manning

This is the first December General Election since 1923, and it is probably one of the least predictable ever. All bets are off until December 13th leaving more questions than answers and even more sparks than usual around the family table.

Somehow Christmas doesn’t seem so important this year, with big issues at stake.

A fractious and fractured nation is caught up in the ugliest election battle in recent memory, dominated by Brexit, the most divisive issue in generations.

The election is wide open. The main parties are unusually polarised between both Brexit positions and political extremes, leaving the centre ground open and many voters unsure which way to go, with many unconvinced (or even repelled) by the parties’ leaders. The Union is endangered far more now than in 2014 as the SNP exploit the political turmoil across the border.

The voter age difference is becoming even more polarised, with a strong Labour preference among 18-34s but the reverse for the older age-groups and with a big North/South split between Remain and Leave as well as party voting intentions.

Meanwhile, Boris and Jeremy are doing their best to inadvertently promote the saner-sounding smaller parties, especially for the 16.1 million Remain-minded voters. The Lib Dems will do well among the centre-ground electorate, especially around Remain-led London.

Promises of spend grow more comical by the day, with little rationalisation of the effect on the economy. ‘Free’ is the most powerful word in advertising and also politics, and ‘free fast broadband’ is a brilliant offer, even if it’s paid for through higher tax.

Media-wise, the ‘mainstream media’ (i.e. national newspapers) tend to do what they have always done, with most supporting the Conservatives and The Mirror and Guardian going the other way. The BBC struggle to get the balance right, but are generally accused of bias by both right and left, so are probably just about succeeding.

Digitally, Remainers and Leavers fight it out on Twitter in a pointless tit for tat exchange of barbs between people who already have an entrenched position. Vitriol and invective have replaced reasoned argument, with the English language and civilised debate now debased permanently.

And Facebook continues to prosper from political spend as each party tries to out-target each other among increasingly smaller swing voter groups.

Meanwhile, Prince Andrew has done the nation a favour by dominating the headlines with the most shocking Royal interview since 1995, temporarily giving us a break from yet more Brexit headlines.

So this is hardly a great time to be dispensing Christmas cheer, and not a great background for advertising to cut through the prevailing mood.

The nation is massively distracted, angry and disillusioned and keen to express its displeasure democratically, and with only 12 days between the vote and Christmas Day, shopping will be left even later this year.

Advertising works best when the timing and context are favourable, and neither are propitious this year. Getting the public interested in your proposition is hard when you are fighting for attention, and when such big issues dominate the discourse.

The ability to cut through is especially difficult in a channel such as Twitter, where so much of the discourse descends into histrionic and foul-mouthed non-debate inside a bubble that has little to do with the real world. And with so many facile, clickbait-led promoted posts cluttering up the timelines, it’s not a place where brands should want to be right now.

With so many businesses, especially retailers, depending on a strong Q4, the timing and context could scarcely be worse, so it is especially important to maximise the chance of cut-through. This is easier said than done, but this year is an opportunity for brave brands to reassert themselves in mass media.

At a time when the nation needs to escape the political mire, the virtues of entertainment shine through, so advertising that associates itself with the better side of life can work harder and lighten the mood.

It need hardly be said that brands need to find a way to stand out in such a troublesome environment, and assert brand preference for physical and virtual shopping, and the best way to do this is to find the best timing and context.

Brands who invest in mainstream media, especially TV, in the right environment and especially in the crucial shortened shopping window will stand the best possible chance of catching the nation in the right frame of mind. With demand for media space relatively depressed pre-election, there will be short-term opportunities that enterprising brands can exploit.

It’s tempting to think that online channels will deliver fast results, but the best way to ensure this is to give them the boost of mass-market coverage, and to disinvest in channels that do not provide the right context and required levels of attention.

Yes, it’s tough out there but brands should stay confident and strong and invest in the right mass-market entertainment-led channels and context at the crucial time with support through performance channels. It’s not too late.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb OMD and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for Mediatel each month.

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