The marketing tactics deployed by the UK’s political parties during the general election campaign were largely ineffective in changing the way people voted, according to new research commissioned by Marketing Week.
Although the scale of the Conservative Party’s victory came as a shock to many, the study by ICM Unlimited suggests very little shifted in the minds of the electorate in the weeks leading up to the vote on 7 May.
The nationally representative survey of 2,000 British adults conducted between 8 and 10 May found that younger voters were more likely to be influenced by party political marketing, with 26% of those aged 18-24 stating that the campaign changed their voting intention, versus only 9% of voters aged 55-64.
However, of the 1,804 respondents who voted, 81% say they did not see, hear or read anything that changed their decision. The result highlights the widespread sense of disillusionment with what many saw as a negative and uninspiring election.
“There’s a general feeling that this was a pretty uneventful campaign,” notes ICM research manager Laura Byrne.
The Conservatives come top across all measures of which party ran the most successful campaign. For example 45% of voters agree that the Conservatives spoke about things that are important to people like them compared to 33% for Labour, while 53% feel the Conservatives did a good job at explaining their vision for government versus just 34% for Labour.
Prior to the election, Conservative prime minister David Cameron was criticised by some commentators for leading a negative campaign that focused too narrowly on the party’s economic record. The research shows this approach ultimately played well with voters while Labour’s campaign was seen as confusing and unfocused.
“We heard over and over again from the Conservatives about the ‘long-term economic plan’ and it was quite an unwavering campaign in that respect, very much fixated on the economy,” says Byrne. “Labour perhaps talked about a wider range of issues but the core message got diluted.”
By far the biggest two issues for voters were the economy and the NHS, mentioned by 52% and 51% respectively as being among the top three concerns influencing their vote. Immigration (33%) followed in third. These issues divide starkly along party lines, with Conservative voters most likely to prioritise the economy, Labour voters the NHS and UKIP voters immigration.
One-fifth of people put ‘having the best party in government’ among their top concerns, the fourth most popular reason for voting, but only 13% say ‘having a strong prime minister’ was important. Tactical voting to stop another candidate winning and fear of smaller parties holding the government to ransom did not even feature in the top 10 issues, despite the level of attention that newspapers devoted to the influence that the SNP or UKIP might have had in a coalition.
Despite the growing role of digital media in the election, leaflets were by far the most popular marketing tool. Seventy-three percent of respondents say they saw or received a party political leaflet during the campaign, versus 52% who received information from TV news and 47% who watched the various leaders’ debates and interviews. Only 16% saw direct political marketing on social media, though 24% say they saw election content from non-party sources on social channels.
The results again show sharp differences between different ages groups, with 43% of those aged 18-24 consuming election content on social media against 14% of 55-64s. In addition, 25% of 18-24s say they read about the election on entertainment websites such as BuzzFeed, compared to an average across the whole sample of 10% who did the same.
Digital media platforms sought to play a prominent role in this year’s election campaign, as Facebook partnered with Sky News for a Q&A event with the main party leaders and BuzzFeed live-streamed an interview with Cameron. Social media also threw up various stories over the course of the campaign, such as the #Milifandom hashtag on Twitter, in which Labour supporters made a humorous show of affection for the party leader Ed Miliband.
However ICM’s Byrne points out that traditional media was much more visible overall. “It’s fair to say that social media is more influential now than it was five years ago and in five years’ time it will be even more significant, but it doesn’t necessarily take the place of TV,” she adds. “TV still has a really broad reach and covers all age groups.”
Beyond politics, one of the biggest stories to come out of the election was the failure of the major polling companies to accurately predict the outcome in the days leading up to the vote. On the eve of the election, the polls had put the Conservatives and Labour virtually neck-and-neck in terms of share of the vote but in the final result, Cameron’s Tories won 36.9% of votes to Labour’s 30.4%, and 99 more seats.
Andrew Wiseman, managing director of ICM Unlimited, says pollsters should take time to reflect on their methodologies in the context of the UK’s changed political landscape. “It’s important we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “The current polling method has been very successful since 1992 – the last year when the pollsters got it wrong – so I’m sure there’s room for innovation and evolving methodologies to make them more accurate in the future.”