Brands must counteract politics’s negativity

With the general election likely to throw up more division, advertising can play a role in helping unite consumers, colleagues and communities again.

downing streetChristmas is one of my favourite times of year. I love all the lights, the cards, the tree, eating too much, drinking too much, giving presents, baking, wrapping. I even like singing carols off-key.

But this year, I have approached the festive season with a tightening knot in my stomach. I’m sure I am not the only one. The general election has put a dampener on the whole thing.

I won’t get into how we find ourselves in this mess. Those of us who have strong feelings will have our own views and those of us who don’t care, well, just don’t care.

I am also not going to attempt to predict the outcome. Possibly for the first time in my life, I really have no idea how the cards will fall. But I am sure of a couple of things.

After election day, we will still be a divided nation. Going to the ballot will not heal wounds. It will not bring Leavers and Remainers together. Rather, I fear it will exacerbate divisions in our society. The gulf between us will be as wide as it has been for the last three years because I suspect the campaign will have just entrenched views rather than unite voters around commonly held values.

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Also, by the time this is all over, people – our consumers, our colleagues, our communities – will be fed up to the back teeth with ‘all this politics’. The toxic state of current political discourse won’t have helped.

The feeling has also been fuelled by political advertising. While we are still, thankfully, a long way from the kind of political advertising seen in the US, this campaign has seen more advertising than ever before, with much heavier spends on super-targeted digital advertising.

All the parties have gone bigger in this space; not just because it is cheaper but because it is thought to be effective (I qualify that because I am not sure there has been any robust evaluation of the impact of this sort of campaign).

But we all know that not all ads are made equal and, while brand advertisers work within a strongly regulated framework, political advertisers do not. My calls for political advertising to be subject to the same regulation as all other advertising have gone unheeded.

All manner of statistics have been manipulated, half-truths uttered, video cut to misrepresent, and bare-faced lies told during the course of the campaign. Some have been called out but the very targeted nature of digital campaigns means we have no idea of the extent of the deceit in this campaign.

I would ask everyone to think how we can all be kinder, more thoughtful and embracing as individuals, friends, family members, colleagues, bosses and brands. Actually don’t just think about it, do it.

Whether fabrication will have had an impact on turnout or voter intention, I am pretty sure it will have had a longer-term contaminating effect on brand marketing, eroding trust in advertising. We will enter 2020 riven, frustrated and cynical.

This isn’t good for any of us. But I don’t want to be all ‘bah humbug’ about it. I am much more Fred Scrooge than Ebenezer. I believe there is a real opportunity for brands to respond to this negative sentiment with campaigns that bring communities together, that focus on what we have in common, campaigns that celebrate our humanity.

Ok, we see a fair few of these at this time of year, but I would like to see more brands running these sorts of campaigns throughout the year, as McCain has done.

There is room for some – how can I put it? – refreshing honesty in campaigns. Personally, I would love to see more campaigns that effectively admit the product they’re selling is only a lipstick; it isn’t going to make you thinner, richer, taller or more popular but it is going to make you feel better. Boots did it brilliantly this summer – more like that please.

And as we brace ourselves for peak Christmas season, let’s also try to prepare for the dark days of January. Especially as the blues will be worse this year given the uncertainties of Brexit. (It hasn’t gone away, we just kicked that can down the road – giving up booze for the month is going to be tougher than usual.)

I would ask everyone to think how we can all be kinder, more thoughtful and embracing as individuals, friends, family members, colleagues, bosses and brands. Actually don’t just think about it, do it. Be kind. Be considerate. Let’s be hopeful. Oh, and don’t forget to vote.