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Political ads are the new cigarette advertising

Remember the Mad Men era. when cigarettes were sold as healthy, life-enhancing sticks of sexiness? Brands were marketed to men and women with images that evoke recognition and inspiration, coupled with factual claims that bore no relationship with the truth.

Of course we have the benefit of hindsight in knowing that cigarettes are not good for anyone. Sixty years ago, it was enough for ad agencies to link them to doctors and scientists, and imply that life is better when you smoke their brand.

Classic cigarette ads

I remember, growing up in the 70s and 80s, that all advertising used to be simply about selling the dream with hopeful claims – sometimes quoting unsubstantiated facts. (See also Are we being ad? Seeing between the lines of commercials.)

Classic car adverts

Car ads used to sell the sexiness of the design along with some emotive claim. Later ads were all about ABS technology, safety features and boot space.

Millennials don’t like traditional advertising. According to a 2014 survey, 84% said so. Kissmetrics has said that 89% of millennials trust recommendations from friends and family more than they trust claims from a brand.

This is why so much money is being invested in social media as an advertising channel, and why political groups are now at the forefront of debate about the morality of advertising messages.

Brexit Leave campaign ads

Two seismic events have turned a spotlight on social media advertising and led to investigations of illicit political propaganda. The first was Donald Trump’s presidential win. The second was the result of the EU referendum. (See also What Brexit and Trump can teach us about PR and communications.)

We have the ongoing investigations into Russian election interference and the tactics employed on social media to drive public opinion. A similar approach was taken by the Leave campaign during the build up to the EU referendum.

These Leave ads were published by Facebook as part of its own investigation into political propaganda on its platform.

Brexit Leave campaign ad - immigration

Brexit Leave campaign ad - tea

Brexit Leave campaign ad - NHS

Brexit Leave campaign ad - polar bears

Brexit Leave campaign ad Turkey

I can’t help thinking how similar these ads are to the kinds of ads published decades ago. They have a modern feel but the tactics are the same.

  • Make a factual claim that doesn’t offer a source to back it up.
  • Ask a question that’s carefully designed to elicit only one response.

Add to this the technological aspect, where the ads can be shown to people of a certain demographic, knowing that those same people will share the ads with friends and family. Hey presto. An influencer-led propaganda machine that preys on emotion.

Why the Remain campaign failed

With this in mind, I have to wonder why the Remain campaign failed so spectacularly to employ the same tactics. Not that I am advocating fake news, but if the Leave campaign had access to these tactics to drive opinion in favour of Brexit, could the Remain campaign not have achieved the same thing?

The only conversation about Brexit these days relates to trade deals, the Irish border and the Customs Union. When we voted, the conversation was only about three things – immigration, NHS funding and sovereignty.

If the Remain campaign had tried to raise awareness before the vote of how many problems we would have to solve, it could perhaps have swayed opinion differently.

What if, for example, they had created ads like these ones below (which I made up).

Straight bananas




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