Monday, February 08, 2016

The EU referendum–the Devil has the better Communications tunes

If I was running a Communications agency pitching for a brief in the EU Referendum Campaign – and was indifferent to the issue – I would far prefer to get the brief from the “Leave” campaign than from the “Remain”.

All mass communications relies on the creation of clear, simple messages which can be rapidly absorbed and which relate to needs of the target group. A political campaign is archetypical “mass communications” – especially when the suffrage is universal as it is with the referendum. And the “needs” need not be physical needs but can be, and in this case are, purely emotional in character. Placing an X on a ballot paper is a powerful act and whilst self-interest plays a part it is primarily an act of commitment, support, rebellion, protest, backing for a particular candidate or choice.

In the referendum the choice is binary (spoilt ballot papers or abstentions apart). And emotions will rule for many. There are complexities in the In/Out choice which even those with the time to do so will be reluctant to explore. For the vast majority of the electorate there can be no expectation that the minutiae of the Common Agricultural Policy or the extent of the implementation of the principle of Subsidiarity will be explored. The hand hovering over the ballot paper will be driven to Remain or Leave by strong, but far from necessarily well-informed opinions, prejudices and emotions.

For the “Leave” campaign it is possible to break down what they believe to be the benefits of the UK leaving the UK into a few simple messages. Messages which are indeed clear, simple and easily absorbable. As hard-core Europhobe Tim Montgomerie put it in The Times:

  • I want Britain to be a free nation again – as free as America, Japan, Australia and other great nations
  • We need unfettered control over our borders and it is up to us, nobody else, to choose who has the right to live in the United Kingdom.
  • The Great Britain of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill has become not much more than a supplicant county council… the British people did not choose to subjugate themselves [in this way]
  • It’s Europe rather than Britain that is weak… an ageing, heavily regulated and welfare dependent Europe is the world’s only regional economy not to have enjoyed any kind of sustained recovery
  • The single currency has condemned millions of young Europeans to unemployment…

And so on! The communications positioning and potential slogans which emerge from this (and elsewhere) are something thing like:

  • We are a big successful Nation we should take our own decisions
  • We must control our own borders
  • Europe is failing, the UK is recovering
  • Our net contribution to the EU is the second highest of any nation – what do we get for these costs?


That four bullet point summary of the seminal messages of the “No” campaign is enough - triggering as it does powerful visual images like the one above . To register these messages in the minds of the voters is all they need to do. This can be done with all the usual communications tools and imagery.

The rational case for Britain in Europe is strong but the no campaign has the advantage in respect of imagery and emotional appeal. Never underestimate the power of patriotism and the inherent fear of the foreigner in the British psyche!



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