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 Such old-fashioned underestimation of the public's reading of media was plainly a generation out-of-date even then - so Saatchis thought it was about time this was taken on a step in 2010.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.

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