25 April 2010

Well hung?

David Cameron has been exercising an interesting paradox this week - accusing the Prime Minister of spreading fear among the electorate over Conservative spending proposals, while spreading his own brand of fear over the possibility of a hung parliament. Here I am using the word 'paradox' as a euphemism for 'hypocrisy', of course.

Faithful as ever, the Daily Telegraph published statistical evidence backing Mr Cameron's fearmongering from the last hung parliament:

The last time a British election failed to produce a decisive result, in February, 1974, the FTSE All Share Index – a broad measure of the stock market – fell nearly 15pc in a month and ended the year more than 50pc below where it began.

Horrors! Except that share prices had been falling since 1972 in response to the 'Oil Shock', so here I use the word 'evidence' in describing the Telegraph's article as a euphemism for 'fraud'.

Many successful democracies around the world cope with extended periods of political stalemate - in the US 'gridlock', as it is known, was a feature of the 1980s, a time of untrammelled prosperity, according to some - and more recently Belgium went for whole months without even a government, never mind a budget. Similarly, Germany rubs by with coalitions, managing to do all right in terms of economic growth. But for Britain it would be apocalyptic if the soothsayers are to be believed.

On the other hand consider the following: why do so many people vote (maybe not enough, but let's leave that) and yet so few people are members of political parties? Take me as a typical example of someone who is reasonably politically engaged, yet I have never joined a political party. Leaving aside issues of expense and lethargy, I think the main reason is the same as most other people's: my views across a range of subjects are ideologically inconsistent, contradictory even, and don't easily fit into a party programme of one colour or another. I value the dynamic prosperity generated by free market capitalism, yet also rail at its injustices; I think the NHS is a national treasure while despairing at its inefficiencies; Protectionism is counter-productive and stifling, yet the BBC is a wonderful organisation. Most voters are paradoxes, and where we place our cross every five years is an aggregation of the most prominent cluster of concerns plus how we feel about the party leaders' haircuts.

So let us look on the prospect of a hung parliament as an opportunity to try something more in line with most voters. Shifting coalitions could generate support for different issues and try to build consensus for legislation. The electorate could be used to crowdsource suggestions for things that need to change, and their proposals could be tested against the spread of MPs, who would feel less encumbered by Party loyalty. The main outcome is almost certainly nothing would happen; only the most desperately needed laws would get passed, and MPs might find they have to spend more time in Parliament working together instead of part-time investment bankers. And I use the expression 'investment banker' as a Cockney rhyming euphemism.

On the offensive

Last week all over the country there was widespread and flagrant abuse of the law against Religiously Aggravated Offences. Perhaps the most blatant occurred on national television, in front of an audience of over 4 million people, where three men repeatedly insulted, caricatured and lampooned each others' beliefs and the police didn't lift a finger. Perhaps it is lucky for all those people that the police chose such a narrow definition of belief systems that it is illegal to mock.

Somewhat less lucky was Harry Taylor, a self-confessed 'militant atheist', who left some cartoons poking fun at various belief systems in a prayer room at John Lennon Airport, Liverpool. The chaplain who discovered them did what any normal person would do who came across an offensive joke - she called the police. This being Liverpool, a city with a notoriously low crime rate and very little policing need, the local fuzz decided that it would be an appropriate use of public resources to investigate, arrest and prosecute Mr Taylor on the charge of 'religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress'. The punchline is Mr Talyor was not only found guilty and given a 6 month suspended sentence, he was issued an ASBO preventing him from carrying anti-religious materials in public.

You can read about the cartoon contents here - all had appeared previously in national mainstream publications - but it is interesting to see what passes for harassment amongst sensitive sections of the public. The much-derided blasphemy laws were finally abolished some two years ago, and were replaced by these harassment laws as both a sop to the hard-of-thinking and a way of updating outdated legislation. By putting the non-violent exchange of ideas onto a public order footing, it has had the effect of creating a much more virulent blasphemy law, that can be invoked subject to the caprice of regional police forces.

A couple of months ago I realised our reasonably newly-created street was finally on the map (even if it is not quite on Google Maps) when we got a visit from an army of Jehovah's Witnesses; I looked on the event as some kind of rite-of-passage into the normal life cycle of an everyday neighbourhood. Now I realise what I had missed was an opportunity to call the police and claim harassment on the grounds that someone was trying to give me literature that offended my beliefs. In light of Mr Taylor's story, I'd like to think it would be taken seriously - but I somehow suspect religious aggravation is strictly a one-way process.

20 April 2010

Things can only get Twitter

Watching the British General Election this year we have seen a once-in-a-generation media event at work, but not quite in the way people expected. During his successful Presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama achieved a lot of success in engaging with a sceptical audience through "new media" - social networks, emails, viral online communications - that left the McCain campaign flat footed. So it was assumed that in the UK 2010 General Election campaigning would follow the same pattern, with the Twitterati leading the charge for change. Yet it seems the biggest difference this year has been from a decidedly old school medium, creating perhaps the most interesting election since 1979.

Things started off much as anticipated: old style rough-and-tumble politics given a new media twist through the creation of posters that were never actually meant to be displayed as such; creative one-liners that were designed to be distributed online (not least because Labour had no budget for a national poster campaign). Here there were also echoes of 1979 as the talents of the Saatchi brothers were brought back on board the Conservatives stalled campaign. Thirty years ago they produced one of the most famous political posters of all time:

This time around we were treated to the rather less impressive (not to say less well punctuated):

'Labour isn't working' was a groundbreaking piece of work for a number of reasons. In particular it challenged the axiomatic truth of political advertising that you never mention the opposition by name for fear of giving them a boost. Such old-fashioned underestimation of the public's reading of media was plainly a generation out-of-date even then - so Saatchis thought it was about time this was taken on a step in 2010. This time they devised a poster that not only name-checked the opposition, it aped the very tradition of political postering. All the Tories had to do was be less awful than Gordon Brown, and they were a shoo-in. So the strategy was to remind the public how much Brown is a figure of contempt for a vocal population of opinion formers, whether the voters themselves actually can be bothered to dislike him or not. And hopefully the digital disgust that can so easily infect online discourse would do the rest. (For a working demonstration of this phenomenon, go to the sadly-still-free Daily Mail online and read the comments stream below any opinion piece. Or, rather, don't - it will undermine your faith in the future of humanity.)

But while it is true that Twitter is alive with a constant stream of electioneering and political trending, and the parties build iPhone aps to help canvass views and sign up voters, in fact the Internet has had far less impact upon this election than media nerds had hoped. The election season opened with two social media false starts: The Conservatives infamous 'Cash Gordon' Twitter debacle that got so out-of-control, Tory HQ had to release news of Sam Cameron's pregnancy to knock it off the top of the news. And the Labour party's misjudged crowdsourcing exercise in poster creation that proved that creating great advertising is not a democratic process.

This lack of impact was confirmed in a more substantive way in a research study by Apex Communications entitled Election 2.0? Don't believe the hype. The summary of its results: "This election will not be decided online. While the use of social media by the national parties, the press and the general public will have an impact on the election, our research shows there is little widespread and effective take-up of online campaigning by individual candidates across the country. No party has yet managed to implement a consistent online strategy at candidate level, and we found very few constituencies where one or other of the candidates is dominating in any noteworthy way."

As if to back this up, the real opportunity emerged from what was new media back in 1979: Television, re-energised thanks to the Leaders Debates. Pre-campaign, expectation was low because of the way the rules of the debate had been negotiated to death - everything seemed so carefully controlled there seemed little prospect of a spark, of people capturing a moment or momentum through a phrase, look or flashpoint. If you didn't actually see the first debate but merely read the reporting afterwards you could be forgiven for believing Nick Clegg was the new Martin Luther King. In fact he succeeded mostly by not joining in - ducking the punches thrown by the lightweight and the Big Clunking Fist - playing rope-a-dope with them until they'd talked themselves out.

Partly this difference between the US and UK elections is one of geography: a British General Election is a mass election of local representatives. They are coming to a street near you and will pretend to care about your broken drains and nearby gypsy camp site. The campaigning is local, the canvassers are neighbours, the constituency boundaries are often walkable - why should I follow my MP's tweets when I can see him talk at my school? An American Presidential campaign, on the other hand, is two candidates for a vast area - the use of technology is not so much modish as necessary to reach those places who will never get a visit from Obama.

Can Clegg maintain his momentum? Has Cameron realised he needs to do more than turn up and smile? Has Brown got a hope? It's almost worth staying tuned to see how this one ends.

13 April 2010

UK General Election 2010: My response to people who argue that it is boring, all politicians are the same and why should they bother?

What do you think this is - Deal or No Deal?

If you can't be bothered to use your brain for 5 minutes and try to get to grips with at least one issue - which will probably not be very interesting, and may even distract you from Eastenders - then go and sit with the children in the ball pit.

05 April 2010

The clot of the amateur

As an advertising professional, I am keenly aware of the way in which the digital media revolution has transformed marketing practices. Especially in the last couple of years, when social media has challenged a lot of the received wisdom of advertising orthodoxy, and forced marketeers to think about their brands in different ways. Two stories this week provided interesting commentary on these trends, and made me think that, when it comes to it, maybe so much hasn't changed after all.

Business Day magazine, in Australia, heralded Twitter as calling last orders on the gluttonous ad agencies, drinking at their clients' expense. Perhaps the most revealing phrase was in the entire article was:

Why pay big dollars to an ad agency when you can create your own inexpensive in-house campaign and get your nephew to launch it on YouTube and Twitter?

Why indeed. For that matter why pay a fancy lawyer big bucks to defend you in court, when your law student daughter would do it for free? Why pay a plumber to fix your heating when you're pretty handy with a spanner yourself? There's an almost charmingly naive assumption that, until now, the only thing keeping an ad agency in business in their ability to operate a camera, or to use PhotoShop. Because the internet has the ability to turn individual creative sparks into global phenomena, we can all do it - and thanks to Blogger, Twitter and Facebook anyone can create an online presence.

I am one of the first people to denounce the preciousness in advertising creativity. It is not a cure for cancer, and the fact that agencies are cabs for hire means we can seldom claim moral worth in the ad campaigns that spill across the media landscape. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean there is no skill involved - and the risk in the fact that "anyone can do it" is just that: your campaign will look like it could have been done by anyone.

Which brings me to the Labour party's "people's poster" campaign, which this week backfired in pretty spectactular fashion. The theory must have looked great and really 'of the moment': instead of wasting money on a big ad agency, members of the public would put forward ideas, and the best would be used as an actual campaigning poster. Saves money and gets supporters involved - a win-win. Given some of the amusing content generated by sites such as www.mydavidcameron.com - driven by word-of-Facebook - you can see why the idea was attractive.

And the winner was:

Although this was supposedly the "People's Poster", the fact that its released coincided with the start of the final series of Ashes to Ashes, leads me to believe it may not have been created by a member of the public at all. But let's run with it, and assume the Cameron-as-Gene-Hunt idea was a bona fide suggestion. I'm not actually that interested in why it was a terrible concept - and that analysis has been done to death elsewhere. But by assuming the wisdom of an online crowd is an exact substitute for the collective brain-power of an ad agency actually shows not so much a lack of faith in their creativity, but a failure to use their agency properly.

An ad agency will take a brief to deliver an objective. The creative is the means to the end - to inspire people to do whatever it is you want them to do - and so, in this case, the "people's poster" process, by making the creative into the end itself, gets the cart before the horse. Maybe the answer isn't a poster (and it almost certainly isn't in today's market with Labour's diminished ad budget), maybe it's not an ad at all. Agency and client will challenge each other's ideas, using the objective as fixed point of reference, and hopefully arrive at a solution that delivers the objective. By removing the agency, and reducing the briefing to a "who can make the funniest joke about David Cameron" competition, the objective vanished and Labour's sense-checking partner wasn't there.

Both the "Twitter nephew" and "people's poster" stories are born of rather old fashioned ideas of advertising, and advertising agencies - the place where you go to waste half your money, in Lord Beaverbrook's immortal phrase. The real revolution online media delivers is explicit measurability of the outcome of your campaign; whereas once you had to guess how many eyeballs saw your ad, today you gather fans' names and addresses via your facebook page, YouTube movie or, maybe, Chatroulette routine. You work together, sharing intelligence and insight to meet commonly-held objectives. And if you want to do that on your own, you're like the man defending himself in court, who has an idiot for a client.