The two officially designated campaigns in the debate – Britain Stronger in Europe on one side, and Vote Leave on the other – are competing for airtime and the attention of the public through a range of marketing tactics, not all of which have proved successful so far.
PR is one of the most obvious communication channels, though both sides have courted controversy in their attempts to dominate the headlines. In March, Vote Leave published a list of murders and rapes committed by 50 EU criminals in Britain – a move that received widespread coverage but that was criticised by the ‘remain’ side as “scaremongering”. Similarly, the pro-EU camp has generated publicity by promoting economic warnings about the dangers of leaving, but faces claims from the Brexit side that it is running an overly negative campaign labelled ‘Project Fear’.
As the underdog side in the debate, according to the majority of polls, the Vote Leave camp has sought to use guerilla marketing tactics to spread its message. Earlier this year, the campaign received a warning letter from solicitors representing the artist Antony Gormley after it projected its message across his Angel of the North sculpture without permission.
The remain side, on the other hand, has the backing of the Government, which spent £9m on sending pro-EU leaflets to every UK household last month. This use of direct mail reflects the remain campaign’s desire to reach older voters, who polls suggest are more likely to be against the EU and more likely to vote. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign also recently launched its ‘Talk to Gran’ campaign in which it is handing out pro-EU postcards to young people at universities and other locations and encouraging them to send them to their grandparents.
The campaign was mocked and called patronising by some commenters on social media, but Will Straw of Britain Stronger in Europe defended the attempt to cross the generational divide. “This referendum will not be won simply by winning the argument in the media, but by creating a bottom-up, word-of-mouth campaign that will reach voters of every age in all parts of our country,” he said.
Both campaigns came in for criticism at Advertising Week Europe last month. Lindsay Pattison, CEO of media agency Maxus, argued that neither side had made a significant impact on social media. “Britain Stronger in Europe has got something like 25,000 followers [on Twitter] and Vote Leave about 35,000,” she noted. “Both of those numbers are pretty pathetic.”