With just 60% of the UK population voting in recent general elections and 8% not even registered, the Electoral Commission has turned to advertising to counter voter apathy.
The commission, the independent body tasked with getting people to vote, is holding a pitch for a new marketing drive to encourage people to register on the Electoral Roll (MW last week). Three teams of COI roster agencies – Farm, Glue and Experience; Harrison Troughton Wunderman, Wheel and Manning Gottlieb OMD; and DFGW, Red Nomad and MindShare – are pitching for the account, which is worth up to 12m over three years.
Until now, the commission has focused on getting people with a vote to use it with campaigns such as "If you don’t do politics". But the latest brief involves getting the public to register to vote in the first instance.
Nina Morris, the commission’s campaigns manager, says new research has helped the body target sections of society that are under-represented. She also points out that the law has been changed to allow people to add their names to the Electoral Roll 11 days before an election, rather than three months before as was previously the case. That means the commission can run advertising campaigns to drive up voter registration even after an election has been announced.
Key targets include young people, ethnic minorities and people who have recently moved house. The commission has been targeting the last group using direct mail and Morris says it got almost 70,000 new registrations from mailings in 2005 and 2006.
Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s former PR man and one of the architects of her success, is in favour of using marketing to try to get people to register and to vote. But rather than trying to create an over-arching brand campaign, he supports more of a "nuts-and-bolts" approach focusing on "distribution, availability and ease of use", backed up with tactical communications to get people to go to the polls and vote.
He adds: "Make voting easier to do, and more people will do it. The obvious answer is to let people vote via the three screens – mobile phone, internet or interactive TV."
The commission is investigating online voting and has already trialed a system using text messaging, but Morris adds that so far the SMS pilot schemes "show no appreciable impact in terms of turnout".
Andrew McGuinness, one of the founders of advertising agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay, has worked on the last two Labour General Election campaigns. He thinks that any registration campaign should have an element of drama and excitement to it and must explore the consequences of voting and not voting. McGuinness describes it as "a kind of Sliding Doors approach" in reference to the Gwyneth Paltrow film that explores how a woman’s life takes different paths depending on whether or not she catches a train.
Communicate complex issues
The problem, he adds, is that the issue is an enormously complex one. He asks: "Does conventional advertising give you the flexibility to explain what is a quite dense message?" Iris London has been working with the COI on a campaign to target voter apathy. Managing director Sam Noble recommends "inclusive, action-oriented campaign language" and says Oxfam’s "I’m in" campaign to stop poverty is a good example.
He adds: "Think inclusion, think involvement, think causes, think consumer culture. Think Jamie Oliver and school dinners."