In the current issue of Campaign, the industry magazine for advertising professionals, there is an interview with Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party and MEP. On the front cover of the magazine is a picture of Farage with a tag line explaining how he ‘used advertising principles to win the Brexit Referendum.
This interview and cover has not gone down well with many in the advertising profession. One comment on social media states that the cover and article ends Campaign’s status as ‘a serious commentator on the advertising industry’. Other comments state that the editorial team at the magazine should be ashamed of themselves.
So why the anger. Well it begins with the definition of advertising:
“Advertising is paid, non-personal communication from an identified sponsor using mass media to persuade or influence an audience”.
The above definition is now seen as somewhat out of date. The rise of social media advertising often means that an advert is aimed at persuading an individual to act rather than a group audience. A more contemporary definition is:
“Paid, mediated form of communication from an identified source designed to persuade the receiver to take some action now or in the future”.
The Leave EU Brexit campaign headed by Farage runs into problems with the word “Identified”.
Much of the campaign’s advertising was anonymous. Promotional content would appear in social media feeds with no information as to who it was promoted by. This allowed messages not directly linked to the European Union to be seeded in the minds of recipients. Often this related to wider issues such as the effect immigration had on public services. The anonymous advertising started long before the referendum and was clearly designed to build an atmosphere amongst people not regularly connected to politics which would allow the idea of Brexit to appear realistic.
This anonymous advertising was also used as a data collection tool. The most egregious example was a competition run during the Euro 2016 football competition. This competition appeared in social media feeds and asked entrants to predict every result of the competition. The chances of any entrant winning the monetary prize were astronomical. The main aim of the competition was to gather personal data in a demographic group potentially malleable to the Brexit message. NO entrant was told that their data was going to be used for political purposes.
Not only was the failure to identify the advertiser a breach of advertising principles; it was also a breach of political campaigning law.
For many years, it was thought that consumers went through a structured mental process when deciding to buy a product. This was described by the mnemonic AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action). First an advertisement should get the recipient’s attention; it should drive their interest in a product; they should develop a desire for the product; and the advert should then be a call to action for the recipient.
Therefore the content of advertising should have four objectives described by the mnemonic DRIP (Differentiate, Remind, Inform, Persuade). Depending on the recipient’s location on the AIDA journey, one of the DRIP elements would take priority. If a consumer is in the Attention stage of AIDA, differentiating your product from those of competitors may take priority; If the consumer is showing interest, you would aim to inform them of your product’s attributes. If the consumer has developed a desire for your product you give them the call to action to buy it. If they are aware of your product and have previously made a purchase, you want to remind them you exist so that they buy again.
Again, the Brexit campaign, built on lies, exaggeration and misplaced patriotism did not conform with the idea of informing voters. It was a propaganda exercise designed to misinform and mislead.
In recent years, the idea that emotion plays a part in advertising has developed. Consumers are not robots. they are emotional beings and you can use advertising to play with their emotions. Some advertising professional consider the role of emotion as more important than factual information processing and a rational message (why do you think the Andrex advertising is built around cute puppies?
The Brexit campaign was clearly successful at this but it was not an exercise in building a positive emotional response. It was using false patriotism to build a negative emotional response. It was an exercise in brewing envy, resentment and anger. Few of the social media adverts in the run up to the referendum were about the positive; they were negative messages about how the EU damage the UK. No mention was ever made of the positive contribution of the EU to the UK economy, infrastructure or environment. Much of the content linked back to a fantasy past; World War 2 and Churchill were common content; it was English exceptionalism on steroids; counterfeit history and dreams of empire.
You could argue that this is where the Brexit campaign succeeded by creating the desired emotional response. Emotion is a powerful tool to change attitudes and the Brexit campaign did this. It successfully created ‘brand memories’; even if those memories were false.
Most advertising professionals complaining about the Campaign article were angry because Farage’s Brexit campaign paid no attention to the ethics of advertising. Despite the comedic trope of advertising executives as rogues, the industry does have a strong ethical code.
Advertising ethics can be defined in the phrase; ‘Legal, decent, honest and truthful’.
Good advertising does not lie to it’s audience. It does not promote forgery and it lies within the limits of public decency. Advertising should respect the truth and it should not set out to deceive the public. False advertising should never be used. The truth should never be altered by the imposition of illusory elements or by withholding relevant facts.
Exaggeration can be used in advertising as long as it sits within the norms and rhetoric or symbolism which are generally accepted.
Advertising should not exhort negative traits such as vanity, greed or envy. It should not use techniques which manipulate human weaknesses.
It can be strongly argued that Farage’s campaign did all of the above.
In the UK, commercial advertising has to conform to legislation and codes of practice. It has to comply with laws like the Protection of Consumers from Unfair Trading Regulations, the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations, the Consumer Rights Act and the Advertising Standards Authority Code of Practice.
Farage’s political propaganda did not.
That said, the Electoral Commission did issue various warnings to the Brexit campaigns during the run up to the referendum; most prominently about the ‘£350 million for the NHS” lie on the Vote Leave campaign bus.
Farage’s most prominent advert during the campaign was the ‘Breaking Point’ poster. The poster showed Syrian refugees on the Serbian border. It was false ‘advertising as those in the photograph were refugees, not economic migrants. Syria, prior to its civil war, was a developed Arabic nation and many in the image were highly qualified people including doctors, engineers and academics. Serbia is not in the EU.
What was even more disgusting was that the image and message of the poster was almost identical to NAZI propaganda against Jews from the 1930s.
Farage’s Brexit campaign was built on lies. It was built on jingoism. It stirred fear of migrants creating the impression they were all scroungers (even though Treasury statistics clearly show that EU migrant contribute more to UK coffers than the take out).
With regard to the legality of the Leave campaigns, Both Leave EU and Vote Leave have received record fines from the Electoral Commission for returning false documentation as regard to campaign spending. The respective responsible person for both campaigns are currently under Police investigation for false accounting.
The ‘money’ behind Farage’s campaign, the insurance businessman Arron Banks, has seen hid company receive significant fines from the Office of the Information Commissioner for misuse of personal data. Staff at Bank’s insurance firm Go Skippy used personal data provided to comparison websites for political purposes without informing people as to how their data was used.
So Farage’s Brexit campaign was, in digital marketing patois, highly ‘black hat’. The phrase referring to early Hollywood westerns where the hero would were a white Stetson and the villain a black Stetson. it paid little or no attention to the truth and arguably it’s mirroring of Nazi imagery exceeded the boundaries of social decency.
Of course, normal advertising ethic played no part in Leave propaganda as there was little or no regard to customer retention. Farage only had to sell Brexit once. Once the campaign was one, cognitive dissonance could run rampant. He knew that once Britain voted out, the terms of readmittance would make re-joining the EU difficult. For example, EU’s terms on acceptance of the Euro, Shengen, and the loss of the UK’s membership fee rebate.
However, commercial advertising does have to have regard for customer retention and brand loyalty. Once you sell your product to consumers, you want to sell it to them again, and again. You want to develop word of mouth so that you grow your sales and your market.
If you set out to mislead consumers; if you breach their norms of decency; the aim of customer retention becomes impossible.