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Why Political Marketing will be vital at the UK General election

The marketing campaign for the General Election on 7 May will really matter, writes Professor Paul Baines. It matters far more than in previous contests because the result will be so close. The smart money is on another coalition but with which lead party is the question? Given this context, much better more integrated marketing communications planning is necessary than we usually see from political parties.

All three main parties need to undertake research to identify persuadable voter segments and determine their messaging themes. They will also need to assess the effectiveness of what they are spending on communications in order to readjust if necessary during the campaign itself.

Most parties undertake extensive polling and focus group research but they seldom undertake longitudinal research over the course of the campaign and yet they could, fairly easily and conveniently, and without blowing their budgets. One such approach is real-life experience tracking, pioneered by MESH Planning, for various blue-chip clients. This would allow them to readjust their communication and policy strategies based on evidence, not on gut feel and the personal authority of particular party executives and politicians.

Political parties don’t focus on young people in elections because they’re less likely to vote but these voters may be critical this year. All three main parties should target young voters. In any case, it’s good practice since they will become parents of the next generation and we know from past research that a person’s vote is often socialised into them from childhood.
Historically, the most important influences on the voter are the election debates – which will be a bit different this time around because of UKIP and the inclusion of other smaller parties – and of course the media. So parties must work hard to manage their press activities and develop more interesting party election broadcasts to drum up support and lure in the undecided, floating voters.

This is different to many other countries, especially in the US, where paid-for political broadcasting is allowed. Unlike Obama in his two presidential victories for the Democrats, the power of political social media marketing is yet to be harnessed by parties in Britain.

I don’t believe digital activity alone will be that relevant to the outcome of the election although I do expect to see all three main parties adopt social media campaigns and there will be a lot of spoofing of opposition adverts and possibly election broadcasts on YouTube. Social media is unlikely to have a major influence on the 2015 election but this will occur in Britain in later elections, I’m sure. This is because online activism at election time will change slowly, partly because older voters (55 plus) – who are twice as likely as 18 to 24-year-olds to vote, with nearly twice the number of them – are much less active on social media.

One unique characteristic of political marketing is its negative tone. Unlike conventional advertising, where comparative advertising is a legal minefield and subject to various UK and EC laws/directives, negative political advertising is easier to pursue, as long as it does not breach ‘good taste and decency’ guidelines. Witness Ed Miliband’s claim under parliamentary privilege during Prime Minister’s Questions that David Cameron was ‘a dodgy Prime Minister surrounded by dodgy donors’.

Negative advertising will work if the claims made by the communicator of the subject (for example, personal: ‘he’s evaded his taxes’ or policy-based: ‘he voted or/against the Second Gulf War’) are perceived to have grounds by the target audience. It can devastate candidates as we saw most famously in modern times with the ‘Labour’s Not Working’ poster for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives’ election victory in 1979.

But where a negative campaign is perceived to be groundless, the negative image attaches instead to the communicator of the message, a ‘boomerang’ effect. We saw this most recently with Gordon Brown’s hatchet man, Damian McBride, who was forced to step down over his attempts to smear political opponents.

Needless to say, I expect a fairly dirty election campaign this time around as there is so much to play for and the two main parties are neck-and-neck in recent opinion polls.

Paul Baines from Cranfield School of Management is the only Professor of Political Marketing in the UK.

  1. […] Marketing will be vital at the UK General election | Policy Review. [Online] Available from:  [Accessed 5 Mar. […]

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