Democracy is a tough commodity to market

Voter turnout in elections continues to fall despite decades of advertising spend to persuade us to go to the polling stations. So how are the campaigns shaping up for June 10?

As the prospect looms of a poor turnout in the June 10 elections, the political establishment is spending heavily on advertising campaigns to encourage the public to vote.

Last week’s announcement by Tony Blair of a possible referendum on the European constitution has increased the pressure on those charged with increasing voter participation.

Up for grabs in June are seats in the European Parliament, some local councils in England, the Greater London Assembly (GLA) and the position of London Mayor. The GLA is putting the finishing touches to a campaign encouraging voting through DDB London while the Electoral Commission, established in 2000 to tackle the crisis of low participation, is half-way through a £4m television and online campaign by St Luke’s.

There is a long history of campaigns to encourage voting, but they have failed to reverse the downward trend. In the Nineties, politicians linked up with the music industry, telling the young to “Rock the Vote” but only succeeded in making them cringe.

In 2000, more than £4m was spent on a campaign to encourage people to vote for the London Mayor with the slogan: “It’s the biggest job in London – you choose who gets it.” Turnout was 34 per cent.

In the 1992 General Election voter turnout stood at 78 per cent, but in 1997 slipped to 71 per cent. By 2001, it had shrunk to 59 per cent and pundits are predicting it could slip below 50 per cent in the next General Election.

To address this problem, the Government established the Electoral Commission as an independent body with a £7m annual budget – largely to spend on vote-promoting marketing campaigns.

Archbishop Rowan Williams delivered a sermon last week that suggested government deception over the war on Iraq was to blame for a “general weakening of trust in the political system of our nation”.

Williams believes the time could soon come for “campaigns of huge civil disobedience… as in the civil rights struggles of sixties America”. And he thinks political leaders are undermining democracy partly because they have “manipulated the media”.

By contrast, the Electoral Commission puts the blame for low turnout on members of the public who are too dim to realise how politics affects their lives.

Its TV campaign shows a cartoon character saying he “doesn’t do politics”, while his friend points out that most of the problems the pair encounter in various scenarios – from failing to win at sports to pub closing times – are political. The rejectionist eventually succumbs and grudgingly admits that his friend is right. Viewers are then directed to a website – for information on how to vote.

The campaign hinges on an age-old coercive advertising technique that humiliates people who reject a product by portraying them as buffoons. But Electoral Commission campaigns manager Becky Lloyd denies the ads are an attempt to humiliate or bully people. She says: “We are trying to overcome people’s lack of knowledge of the political process. We are not doing a selling job on politicians, but by not voting at all, you are not registering any point of view.”

Dave Buonaguidi, former St Luke’s creative director and now head of his own agency Karmarama, is sceptical that television advertising can help to reverse low voter turnout – and admits he does not vote.

“You need to start getting into people’s heads in a different way,” he says. He also slams the idea that by convincing Joe Bloggs issues such as England’s sporting performance are political they are more likely to vote.

An alternative way of pressuring people to vote was used by BMP.DDB before the 1997 General Election. The campaign – in conjunction with the Ministry of Sound and with a tiny budget – showed real-life people expressing extreme right-wing, racist, sexist and homophobic views capped off with the line: “Use your vote – you know he will use his.”

Chris Powell, former chairman of the agency (now DDB London) says: “The strategy is still right – to make people angry. It was an attempt to wind them up. You need to get people’s blood up to get them out to vote.” (He contrasts this with what he sees as embarrassing and ineffective Rock the Vote campaigns.)

For the Electoral Commission, this approach is too partisan. But by June 11 there will be some early indications of the commission’s own success in changing people’s attitudes and behaviour and making voting matter again.

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