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Media lessons from the General Election - don't believe the hype

20 Jan 2020  |  Nick Manning 
Media lessons from the General Election - don't believe the hype

If social media failed to sell Labour, despite its blanket presence and big numbers, the same could be true for brands, writes Nick Manning

The 2019 General Election should go down as one of the lowest points in British political history. A nation with fractured political parties and a public hopelessly divided by Brexit indulged in vitriolic debate, where no insult was too extreme.

Well, that’s what Twitter was like, but the media coverage overall reflected just how low we have sunk in terms of public discourse, with simplistic repeated slogans prevailing over nuanced debate.

However, the election period and result tells us a lot about the performance of media and this has lessons for the marketing community.

There are four key media themes that emerge from the swamp.

Firstly, the power of social media was wildly over-stated and this distorted expectations of the election result.

Secondly, and ironically, the national newspapers were blamed by Labour for their defeat and TV proved to be the most powerful influencer, reinforcing the continuing power of mass media.

Thirdly, the absurd vilification of the BBC reached new heights among the political classes, ignoring its vital contribution to British culture.

Fourthly, public behaviour cannot be directly linked to any one channel in a pluralistic, multi-media world and our attempts to use data to explain causes and effects can only go so far.

It has become commonplace to describe social media as the new battleground for electioneering. An article in The Spectator on December 9 extolled the mighty power of social media, stating that “online campaigning - when done right - has the potential to change the political weather”.

A headline in The Times on the actual day of the election declared “Labour claims it won social media battle”, as its videos on Facebook gained 86.2 million views, 60 million more than the Conservatives; Labour had run “the most successful election social media campaign ever seen”.

Well, the electorate seems not to have received the memo. Voters may have seen some of the social media coverage, but Labour’s proud share-of-voice doesn’t seem to have impressed them much. Shades here of Corbyn’s “we won the argument” claim in The Guardian.

We have become used to the idea that social media is able to swing elections, and the furore over Cambridge Analytica and possible Russian manipulation in multiple elections has generated gargantuan coverage. But what if the influence of social media has been wildly exaggerated? I confess to falling into the trap of thinking that the election would be a close contest based on my own Twitter feed.

There may be a parallel here for the advertising industry. If social media failed to sell Labour, despite its blanket presence and big numbers, the same could be true for brands. It’s easy to mistake lots of social noise for what’s really going on across the land in the real world. Social media is a poor guide.

That brings us to the power of newspapers. Many Labour voices blamed defeat on the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn in the 'billionaire-owned’ press, and without that we would now have a Labour government.

The one-eyed commentators failed to observe that Reach, the owner of the Express and Mirror, is a public company and manages to house two newspapers with diametrically opposite political leanings. That message wouldn’t fit the narrative.

So, was Labour’s intense social media campaign an attempt to neutralise the predictable negative press coverage? If so, it failed badly. Or did they really believe the campaign would hinge on social media? If so, they were very out-of-touch with the nation’s true feelings.

However, Labour are probably wrong. While there was undoubtedly a lot of adverse Corbyn coverage, Brexit was undoubtedly a bigger factor in voting intentions and the newspapers’ coverage of Brexit over a three year span was probably far more influential.

The public ultimately judged Corbyn on what they saw of him and his track-record from multiple sources, not just newspapers. Corbyn’s past caught up with him and his favourability ratings hit -60% in a YouGov poll in late October, the lowest of any party leader ever.

The election result closely matched that data. The result was predictable weeks out (and indeed predicted by private polling that was ignored) but the nation allowed itself to believe from media coverage that it would be a close-run thing.

There is another lesson for advertisers in this. Don’t underestimate the public; they don’t believe the hype and see through attempts to influence them. A poor product or reputation cannot be rescued by advertising.

The most powerful medium in the election was, as ever, TV. One of the biggest talking-points in the run-up to polling day was whether Boris Johnson would allow himself to be eviscerated on TV by Andrew Neil, a question done to death in the traditional media and social. This would not have been true of a radio, press or online interview.

Understandably Johnson dodged the Neil bullet as he and his team know very well the power of TV in forming public opinion and its effect on other channels.

Another lesson for advertisers. The power of TV to drive a reaction in other channels remains despite audience losses. People seeing the back-wash don’t even need to see the live version, so widespread is the subsequent coverage, including the distribution online of excerpts.

Another big talking-point issue arising from the election was the strident widespread denunciation of the BBC, accused of being biased to both the Right and the Left, to both Remain and Leave and being seen as a Tory mouthpiece, staffed by Tories, but somehow with a liberal ‘Islington’ bias. Everyone piled in and Twitter was aflame with people metaphorically tearing up their TV licences in protest at the perceived outrageous lack of balance in the BBC’s election coverage.

Yes, the BBC had its ‘off’ moments, but the anger directed at the corporation was an extreme version of confirmation bias, amplified to the max by social media. On the basis of their election coverage the BBC should apparently be shut down or funded by advertising.

No doubt the people raging about the BBC would not then have been among the 11.6 million viewers to watch the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, making it the biggest scripted TV programme of the decade.

Nor presumably did they watch the imaginative serialisation of Dracula. BBC shows filled seven of the top ten shows over Christmas.

Critics of the BBC presumably no longer take in Strictly, Match of The Day, Eastenders, The Archers or follow the news and weather on BBC websites. And they may have missed the 10pm election exit poll moment on the BBC, a jaw-dropping live event.

And here is the rub. The electorate voted the way they did because they know what they like and they like what they know. They like their British institutions, don’t like politicians who denigrate the monarchy (even after Prince Andrew’s attempt to help), support the Armed Forces (and provide the manpower) and they like their familiar favourites, including the BBC. Politicians should take note when threatening to take revenge. The public is conservative with a small ‘c’ and voted Leave partly on this basis.

Whether it’s political parties or brands, the public have many ways to form judgments in the information age, and the influences converge, merge and feed off each other. The effects of some channels (especially social media) can be over-read while others (for example, press) can be under-valued.

Any good advertising campaign will cover all of the angles, while brands need to nurture their product and reputation through other means, both physical and virtual.

Attempts at data-led attribution are noble but ultimately flawed, given the complexity of brand influences in today’s marketing world.

One thing for sure is that you can’t put lipstick on a pig, promote the hell out of it on social media and expect the public to comply, as Labour discovered.

We can only hope that the public’s refusal to play the game in the General Election will cause political parties to re-think. It should also cause the marketing community to also consider how people truly think and buy in the age of multi-channel influence.

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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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NigelJacklin, Founder and MD, Think.me.UK on 22 Jan 2020
“I think I agree with much of what you are saying...three observations...
1 It is completely futile using twitter as a gauge of public opinion, especially for the ultimate mass market 'decision' (an election). Most people pay little or no attention to twitter.
2 It is also futile to attempt any form of attribution analysis...given that (maybe) the biggest factor was when the election got called...i.e. at a point when Brexit could (not) get done and people knew what they (didn't) like(d) about Jeremy Corbyn.
3 Perhaps the more people who saw the Corbyn stuff, the more they disliked him. The pastiche thing I saw in which he read out nasty tweets about him was so smug and middle class I can really see why our friend the bin man didn't vote for him. He peaked some time ago.”

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