Wind Tunnel Politics
12th May 10
Post by Jim Carroll, Chairman, BBH London
It was going to be the most important Election in a generation.
It was going to break the mould of British Politics.
It should have been so exciting.
So why did it all seem so unfulfilling? Why did our eager anticipation of the first debate turn to a stifled yawn by the third? Why did our ardour for the new kid turn so quickly to complacency? Why did we shrug at the glossy manifestos, put the recycled thinking straight into the recycling bins?
This was the Sunblest Election. The Election when all the mighty forces of Marketing created three soft, medium sliced, plastic packaged loaves. Designed to please, guaranteed not to let you down. Perfectly pleasant on their own terms, but curiously unsatisfactory.
You see, all three candidates and campaigns had been put through the same Marketing Wind Tunnel.
Rolling focus groups, private polling, polished PR, whispering spin doctors, joy stick analysis…They had collectively eradicated the edges, the uncomfortable, the unpalatable.
They had created three glossy, smooth undifferentiated paradigms of inoffensiveness.
Everyone knows that the debt needs tackling, that there are hard decisions to be made, jobs to be cut, taxes to be raised. But the focus groups said the electorate didn’t want to hear it and so the candidates didn’t want to tackle it. Efficiencies, my arse… No surprise perhaps, that an exclusive consideration of undecided voters produced indecisive outcomes; that researching marginal constituencies produced mainstream opinions; that endless focus groups produced unfocused group-think. It all seemed so timid, so spineless, so lacking in confidence.
It pains me as someone who works in the communications industry to see the techniques designed to sell soap powder applied so assiduously to such substantive matters. It pains me not just because politics ought to be a little more complicated. But also because the Marketing model that’s been applied is itself broken.
Advertising Agencies used to be in the business of finding and articulating difference. We used to help our Clients establish strong, compelling, differentiated truths. Don’t just ‘hold a mirror up to the consumer’, we said. Consumers don’t want their worldview mirrored and reinforced; they want to be challenged, stimulated, inspired. But over the last ten years Marketing has fallen victim to formularisation and commoditisation. ’Best demonstrated practice’ has been distilled, codified, taught and tested. The researchers have taken over the asylum. The quest for difference has been replaced by the quest for inoffensiveness. Holding a mirror up to the consumer is no longer anathema; it is the recognised norm, standard practice. Have you ever wondered why the beer and car ads you used to love now look so similar, so sane, so sensible? Well the Agencies and Marketeers that produce them have been looking for the same answers, in the same way, in the same places.
They’ve all been through the Marketing Wind Tunnel.
This was also supposed to be the first Digital Election. We had visions of grass roots participation, of new voter engagement, of a more visceral, real time debate. Indeed there was a vibrant online conversation, but it was a conversation fuelled by the big beast of telly. I guess the political establishment fell for McLuhan’s seductive aphorism: the medium is the message. They imagined that arming our MPs with Twitter accounts might send the youth of Britain into a swoon. But the truth is the medium is not the message. It communicates and amplifies the message; in some cases it prompts participation with the message. But it is not the message. If you have something to say to young people then the media to talk to them about it are social and digital. But if your message is bland, cautious and commonplace, what do you expect?
It’s obvious that Obama wasn’t successful simply because he designed a cunning digital strategy. It’s obvious that Obama hadn’t been through any Marketing Wind Tunnel. In our world we’d say he was a great product, a great brand, with a real difference, with something worth saying…
I hope, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that all Politicians, winners and losers, are humbled by this Election. I hope there is a rebellion against the insipid, spineless, formularised Wind Tunnel Politics that have deprived us of the vital engagement the electorate craves and the issues demand. They may not want to talk to the likes of us again. But if our political masters want some communication advice for next time, let’s give it to them. Get yourself a great product, with a strong sense of difference. Be confident in who you are and what you stand for. And then sing it from the rooftops (and the blogs and the Twitter feeds). You know what. People may not mind that you’re saying something different or challenging or hard to stomach. They’ll respect you for it. They may well want to talk to you about it.
And if you say it well and persuasively, they might even vote for you.