NO campaign leaving YES to AV in the dust?

Are the 'No' to AV campaign in the forthcoming British referendum gaining the upper hand thanks to ruthless negative adverts?
Matt Wootton
23 March 2011

 I support the Yes to AV campaign for British electoral reform. My colleague 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:

NO baby


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. 

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 20,149 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.

This is a shortened version cross-posted with thanks from Green Words Workshop

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