23 Feb

NO campaign leaving Yes to AV in the dust

I support the Yes to AV campaign for British electoral reform. My colleague here on the Green Words Workshop, Rupert Read, does too (and he’s written a couple of excellent recent pieces supporting AV here and here).

Unfortunately I’m concerned that the No campaign is leaving the Yes camp far behind, in terms of their framing, emotional appeal and general communication. The Yes camp just don’t know how to do cognitively-informed communication. The No side clearly do.
Martin Kettle rightly identifies the British people’s annoyance with politics in his Guardian piece last week “Public hostility to politics will deliver a yes to AV”.

He’s right to say “the mood is for change”, but the question is “what kind of change?”. Kettle’s opinion is that public hostility to politics will deliver a yes vote. I’m not so sure it won’t do the opposite. And by the look of the way the two opposing campaigns are conducting their communications, the No side is streets ahead of the Yes camp in capturing the public’s hostility and mistrust towards politics.

This has a potentially tragic outcome for the Yes campaign. They will have the people on their side, but if the people don’t realise that they’re on that side, they will still lose. Have a look at the skill and cunning with which the No campaign is deploying their communications:

Click on the baby for more examples. Some of these ads are too “stock” in their photography, and bordering on cheesy, but their message is clear.

To paraphrase their emotional impact: “The Yes side care about boring dull technicalities like an “alternative voting system”. We the No side care about real things, like helping people. That’s what’s important”. Unfortunately for most people not already convinced of the Yes argument, that is going to be a pretty devastatingly good argument. The success of the No campaign’s ads is not just cunning. It is cognitive awareness. It is the knowledge (that right-wing organisations have known for years and that left-leaning/progressive organisations still haven’t “got”) that political communication happens overwhelming at an emotional and subsconscious level. But typically, the Yes campaign are not only being beaten by the No side, they are playing the game exactly the way the No camp would wish them to, displaying their own lack of cognitive awareness.

Today, the Chair of the Yes campaign wrote to supporters (like myself) calling attention to the No campaign’s “shocking and shameful” attempts to “play on voters’ fears”, specifically singling out the baby ad. Kate Ghose also drew attention to outright lies by the No campaign. But the lies are not the problem. The problem is the effectiveness with which the No camp is putting forward the truth, or at least things that will resonant with the vast majority of the British public as true. By contrast, the Yes camp’s messages are spectularly unresonant. Their latest campaign, after having set up a petitioning of the BBC to re-think their editorial guidlines around the word “reform”, is to lobby the Advertising Standards Authority to “step in” and police the “unfair” tactics of the No side over the baby graphic.

Unfortunately this plea to an impartial arbiter is – and I’m sorry to have to say this – exactly the kind of whining that makes the Yes side look like losers. When you cry “The other boys aren’t playing fair!” the next phrase that comes to mind is “Mummy, make them play nice!”. Well, mummy’s probably not going to help (the petition to the BBC has resulted in  no sign yet of them reversing their editorial policy, despite the 20149 signatories to-date: mine included). The only thing that calling for mummy does is: make the Yes side appear to be losing (because they wouldn’t have to be calling for help otherwise), make the No side appear to be “on top”, and make the Yes side appear “weak and woosie”. It also gives the issue more air-time as the media endlessly plays and replays the right or wrong of the situation, without conclusion, all the while giving time to the original framing.

This might seem over-the-top or overly harsh, but it is exactly the way Drew Westen characterises the US Democrats’ use of the “no fair!” move in his book The Political Brain. Westen is not writing just his opinion. He’s writing based on years of psychological and cognitive research into the way the human brain functions and makes sense of politics.

Should the Yes campaign by calling-out the No side on their lies and distortions? Yes! Absolutely. Westen would approve. But they really need to do so in a way that makes them appear strong, warm, positive, and, most of all, winning. Tricky to do when your main message is a petition, but it is the Yes side’s lack of values-based emotionally impactful messages and the corresponding lack of a warm, strong, positive identity that is the biggest problem. To quote Westen again: “he who frames first normally frames best”. From a cognitive point of view the Yes camp have failed so far to frame their messages effectively, failed to predict (and, crucially, innoculate against) the No campaign’s messages and have fallen into expected traps that left-leaning/progressive organisations always fall into, shortly before they become prey to the more cognitively-aware Right.

Is the No side’s use of misleading advertising morally offensive! Yes, of course, very much so! But to most ordinary people, the prioritisation of an alternative voting apparatus over a baby’s life seems more morally offensive. That’s why the Yes side needs to fight fire with fire. And I don’t mean by being equally manipulative. I mean by being equally effective in their emotional and indeed moral impact.

To be fair, the Yes side are in a difficult position. The No camp are using highly debateable arguments to forward their cause (such as that “AV gives fringe parties a better change of winning”, when AV actually rewards parties that have the most broad support). But there are plenty of things that the No campaign says which are basically true, however potentially distorted, and their language goes straight to the core: “AV is expensive and complicated” (arguably untrue… but once it’s been said it’s too late..), “AV makes elections unfair” and the most cutting one “AV is a politician’s fix”. The politician’s fix line sums up – to me – what the Yes camp should be saying about the No side! Yet perversely it seems the wrong campaign is using it. Why?

In contrast to the No side’s strong statements above, the leading messages on the YES website for the last few weeks have been “Dear Margaret…”, “Unfit for Purpose”… “Our Supporters”.. and “Cosign our letter to the BBC”.

These are non-statements. And I don’t think cosign is even a real word…, and even if it is it reinforces the No side’s framing of the Yes camp as intellectual, aloof and upper middle-class. Words matter!

You can take a look at my archived screen grabs of the Yes and the No websites.
And we can also compare in words the two campaigns’ rotating banner graphic messages. First the No campaign:

1. AV IS A POLITICIANS’ FIX. The only vote that really counts is Nick Clegg’s (partly-transparent image of Nick Clegg looking gormless). Just say no! No to AV

2. AV IS COMPLICATED AND EXPENSIVE. AV requires costly counting machines. (partly-transparent image of a traditional polling station at a school). Just say no! No to AV.

3. AV MAKES ELECTIONS UNFAIR. Make sure you read the small print. (image of an X being written in a box). Just say no! No to AV

4. HELP SPREAD THE WORD. Social media and community campaigning is just a click away (multiple images of diverse people with NoAV ribbons on their profile pics). Just say no!

5. REGISTER TO VOTE. It’s easier than you think! You need to be registered to vote in UK elections and referendums (image of an X going into a metal padlocked ballot box).

Now let’s contrast the Yes to Fairer Votes site’s recent banner graphic messages (bigger than the No banner, to the extent of (unhelpfully) obscuring the rest of the page):

1. DEAR MARGARET…  (image of a letter on Yes to Fairer Votes letterheaded paper, lying on a desk, addressed to Margaret Beckett, with the subject line:Why won’t the No campaign defend First Past The Post?). The actual letter text is too small and obscured to read. The graphic fades to the next graphic within 8 seconds.
2. UNFIT FOR PURPOSE. (image of what seems to be a webpage with an ippr logo, the word briefing in very small type, and the headline Worst of Both Worlds with the sub-heading Why First Past the Post No Longer Works). [Ironically “the worst of both worlds” is how some on the left have already framed the AV proposal. This frames therefore activates an opponent’s frame].
3. EVENTS IN YOUR AREA (image of a bunch of people dressed mainly in black, standing in front of some railings and enthusiastically waving small purple YES! cards, holding a crumpled purple YES! banner).
4. TO FAIRER VOTES (image of a pretty girl of student-age, possibly with Arabic heritage, holding a plastic YES! branded placard. The whole image conveys the sentence “Yes to fairer votes”. The placard is shaped like a speech bubble. Her mouth is closed and resolute looking).
5. OUR SUPPORTERS (image of a bunch of logos. The ones that catch my eye are Greenpeace, and some things called Alliance and bmsd).
If that description got a bit boring, it’s because the website content gets a bit boring. It’s certainly not impactful.
Both banners have next to them, to their right, text boxes for entering personal contact details. The No 2 AV sites says:

 Defend equal votes.
 Say NO to unfair elections.
 Keep one person one vote.

{First Name} {Last Name}
 {Email Address}


The Yes to Fairer Votes site’s says:

MPs will have to work harder to earn and keep our support. Doing just enough wont be enough any more. Sign up now to find out how.
 {Email Address}
 {Postcode} SAY YES!

It is unclear why we might not be able to “find out how doing just enough won’t be enough any more” elsewhere on the site or without entering out contact details. Unlike the No site the Yes site contains no commitment “I want to…”, just a bribe: “sign up now to find out how”.

All of this might seem like niggling, but it is the fine thinking that will stop the Yes side from winning this referendum: the No campaign know how to make an emotional impact, to resonate with people’s values, and to reframe their arguments to make them look like the beliefs that the vast majority of the British public hold.

By contrast the Yes campaign is noticeably stuffy, technical if not obscure, intellectual and middle-class.

We’re willing to help the Yes side engage constructively with a cognitively-informed communications approach. We’ve already partly-successfully warned them about the inadequacy of their SEO (Search engine optimization), and as of today the search term “Yes to AV” has seen the Yes campaign’s front page climb to third place on Google. Needless to say it should be, and should always have been, in first place.

At the moment there is still to much of an NGO pleading-for-change approach. The Yes campaign needs to show strength, warmth, leadership and to emanate comfort and trust. Until they do that, we have continued worries about the British people’s “mood for change” being rewarded with the wrong result.