The outcome may be odd, but political marketing is even odder

So, the election has come to an end. The wonderful world of publishing, even online, means that I’m writing this before the final whistle has blown.

However, it’s as good a point as any to look back on the course of political marketing in the long wind up to May 6th.

It’s safe to say that political marketing is odd. For a start, it’s exempt from the CAP code for non-broadcast. Therefore, unlike soap powder or cars, any claims made don’t have to be substantiated. Political advertising is not allowed on television – we prefer the ‘Party Political Broadcast’ in this country. Be grateful. It’s a really good signal for a comfort break or to replenish that empty glass without fear of losing the key plot twist in Midsomer Murders. 

Data protection legislation has no such easy get-out. If the main players in any other market had all broken, if not to say flouted, identical sections of a privacy law, then you’d expect the government of the day to be waving a big stick and talking of stricter controls, the unacceptable face of capitalism – you get the theme.

But this is politics, where turkeys have historically had control over the timing of Christmas. It’s against the law to make an automated call to a consumer and play them a recorded message without specific prior consent. However, there were 495,000 people called by the Labour Party in mid-2009 – and perhaps previously called by them in 2007; another tranche called by the SNP in 2005; still more by the Conservatives in 2005 and even the Liberal Democrats got in on the act in 2008.

For the rest of us voters, our only experience of the unsolicited automated call is probably from a Florida timeshare company operating out of UK legal jurisdiction. 

The fact that political parties have repeatedly used this unlawful approach, despite helpful prior warning and advice from the friendly people at the Information Commissioner’s Office (yes, they really are friendly) speaks volumes.

Einstein defined insanity as repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. He wasn’t thinking of telemarketing at the time, but it’s still true. More worrying is that a political party should really have enough basic understanding of consumers to know that nobody likes this sort of interruption. The receipt of an automated, pre-recorded message, if it doesn’t result in a complaint, is hardly likely to leave the recipient bathing in a warm glow of appreciation that the party just calling them shares their values. 

The fact is that the regulations enabling the Telephone Preference Service and the further regulations to control pre-recorded automated calls have been hugely popular with the general public – a broad demographic grouping otherwise known as “The Electorate”. The irony that political marketing (such as it exists) misses this key point would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Politics has always been an exercise in marketing of one type or another, even if sometimes the politicians didn’t really know that it was. The problem with marketing within politics is that when your product really comprises of ideas and promises, it’s all too easy to have them usurped by your competition. So the natural tendency is to drift towards image and sounds, such as via sound-bite and theme tune – remember Things Can Only Get Better?

The ever-educational Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches this week went to some key marginals and found that people were claiming to receive about a piece of mail a day from parties vying for their allegiance. So it would appear the DM industry has made some money in this election. However, as we know this money is not evenly spread. On a personal note I’ve had a couple of leaflets but that’s all.

It would seem that the perversity of our democratic (sic) system and the power of data-driven marketing has created a situation where, like the ever-faithful Pareto rule, 80 per cent of the importance sits with 20 per cent of the population. Readers of Data Strategy should be fairly adept with statistics and numbers so would probably appreciate www.voterpower.org.uk – a site that ranks the value of your vote in your constituency. It helped a colleague of mine realise that his vote was almost worthless and therefore absolved him of the need to rush home to vote. His vote wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. Viva a night in the pub.

Alternatively, if you want to track political marketing, ensure that you choose where your seeds live very carefully. Should we be in a situation where another election happens reasonably quickly – quite possible if I’m reading the latest runes correctly – I’d expect voters in the 7 per cent of constituencies that are “very marginal” to receive still more and more targeted marketing. Their pavements will be worn out by the worthy and motivated activists, their babies kissed until their cheeks are raw.

Data will still be a key driver for identifying where the political pound can be best spent. Even the most hardened cynic can see that it’s a great example of what can be achieved when you pull together public and private data to drive actions. And for data marketers, we can hope political marketing continues to stay the right side of the law.

By Charles Ping, account director, Communisis

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