General Election 2019: Advertisings Heroes and Villains

In General Elections, parties like to run with certain narratives that accentuate their policies. The stories they tell about leaders can be both seductive, entertaining and ruining for political fortunes. This article deconstructs the cults of personalities that are being built around leaders accompanied with analysis of demographic data that suggests who these stories are being told to. The Conservative party machine is actively using targeted advertising to liken Boris Johnson to a James Bond style image of masculinity sending these images specifically to men. While the Lib Dems are emphasising the leadership of Jo Swinson, The Labour Party are focused on using targeted advertising to forward Labour party messages instead using Corbyn’s large social media following to lionise his image as leader. Targeted advertising is also being used to demonise political opponents. The Conservatives are framing Corbyn as dodgy and reckless, while Labour and the Lib Dems are stressing how voters cannot trust Boris Johnson. The Targeted Advertising library provides the perfect data-set to record qualitative features of major electoral campaigns and provides one of the best ways to analyse party trends.

In answer to my title, the Tory party has attempted to portray himself as both James Bond and Johnny English. Firstly, an explicit appeal to masculinity has been made in 4 photo’s where Johnson appears in a James Bond style action shot. The first, shown to an 82% male audience, 33% of whom are between 18 and 24, shows Boris Johnson sporting the poppy and drinking Whisky at a distillery in Scotland. While the image is matched with text about how the industry supports 42,000 jobs, the audience demographic suggests that the focus is on the identifying Johnson with hard liquor. Beyond bond, the image of hard liquor brings to mind heavy drinking masculine heroes like Winston Churchill, Christopher Hitchens and Don Draper.

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The second shot of Boris Johnson at the Tetley Tea Factory in Teeside was shown to 78% of males across all ages. Again this associates Johnson with a powerful symbol of the British masculinity. The combination of ordinariness, everyone drinks tea, makes Johnson appeal towards the common British man, in this case, the image of Johnson chin-wagging with the worker serves to emphasise this. Similarly, the third image of Johnson starting the day with a cup of coffee, shown to an audience of 82% of the audience with 35% being between 18-24, makes Johnson seem familiar and fuelled with caffeine, despite the fact he is the British Prime Minister. The fourth and final shot demonstrates him with a glass of water, ‘adding the finishing touches’ to a speech, suggesting he can spend the day drinking, whisky, tea and coffee with British workers and then still has the time and brilliance to complete the business required of Her Majesties Prime Minister. Once again this was seen by an audience of 75% male. Therefore, Johnson has actively attempted to create images of British masculinity and deliver these primarily to a male audience, attempting to embody the archetypes that male’s both relate to and admire.

At the same time as embodying the James Bond-esque archetypes, arguably Johnson’s most powerful weapon is his ability to be humorous. Rachel Johnson, Boris’s sister described a formative moment where instead of learning his  lines in a performance, he read them out in a funny voice. The effect was far more entertaining than had he actually done what was required of him. In this vein, Boris’ has always sought to play the fool, be it his rugby tackles in charity football matches or describing to Chinese people how British people created ‘wiff waff’ (ping-pong), he has always lent heavily on his ability to entertain. That’s why I am heavily inclined to believe that the 4.40 minutes election broadcast, targeted throughout Facebook, is intentionally awkward and as described by the Guardian ‘like David Brent’. The Times and Guardian seemed to completely overlook the comic side, the former saying that ‘it is too long for a piece of social content’, and the latter accusing Johnson as aiming to ‘position himself as an everyman’. What they fail to notice is the attention effect this had on social and mainstream media. People that despise Boris Johnson posted and satirised this content, eventually getting the video trending throughout Twitter under hashtag David Brent. While he does mention policies, the main impact of this clownish performance has been to expose millions towards the most likeable side of Boris Johnson which is not his James Bond lifestyle, but his ability to make people laugh. While the continual comparisons between Johnson and Trump are often very lazy, I would argue the strongest parallel that can be drawn between them is the ability to play politics and the media like a shameless reality TV show.

A socialist is probably the direct juxtaposition towards the James Bond, soviet fighting spy, archetype and while there have been a few red filtered pictures of Jeremy Corbyn, the stark difference between the two parties advertising techniques is that Labour have reeled away from overemphasising there leader. Whereas the Conservatives are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds broadcasting videos of Johnson, Labour has spent just £150 for a single clip of Corbyn talking about flooding in South Yorkshire. This could suggest that the Labour leader is not as popular with the general public leading to a greater emphasis on the party. While this may be he approach taken on Facebook, Corbyn’s cult of personality is being strongly harnessed through his own Facebook group and that of Momentum. Corbyn has the largest social media following with 2.1 million on Twitter and 1.5 million on Facebook. Momentum, a grass roots movements that back Corbyn, have 143,000 Twitter likes and 259,000 on Facebook. By comparison, Johnson has 1.2 million Twitter followers and 764,000 Facebook followers, while Jo Swinson has a miserly 165,000 Twitter followers and just 16,000 on Facebook. Therefore Corbyn has far stronger communicative power through these avenues. The content is generally very ordinary, showing policy features from speeches accompanied by inspiring music. Instead of actively selling the Corbyn brand through Facebook algorithms, Labour have decided to pump his image to users that willingly follow him.

Despite her small amount of social media support, The Liberal Democrats are confidently pushing the name and image of Jo Swinson as party leader. Whereas Labour party targeted advertising distances policy from Jeremy Corbyn, The Liberal Democrats are leading with videos that outline ‘Jo Swinson’s Plan For Britain’s Future’. Instead of pushing the party they emphasise the individual making statements like ‘Back Jo Swinson to stop Brexit’.

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Through emphasising the individual, The Liberal Democrats are actively making the voter choose between a Boris Johnson Brexit or a Jo Swinson remain. This is most effectively demonstrated in the image above were a defiant and colourful Swinson is contrasted to an incompetent, weary and grey looking Johnson. According to Chuka Umunna the Lib Dems had seen a “collapse” in traditionally strong Conservative areas in London. Therefore ad campaigns that directly contrast the leadership of Swinson and Johnson may aid efforts to overturn Tory majorities.

Demonization: Corbyn the Crook and Johnson the Dunce

Beyond glorifying parties, leaders and policies, political campaigns also require an effective use of the dark arts. At the moment Conservatives are doing their best to distort the image of Jeremy Corbyn while Labour and Lib Dems are pushing the narrative that Johnson cannot be trusted.

The Tory party have posted a series of photos that make Corbyn look untidy, illegitimate and somewhat dodgy. The following images frame Corbyn as a tabloid villain.

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The visuals of him looking like someone who has been caught on Rogue Traders are accompanied with descriptions of spending plans that would put the country in debt and make people pay thousands in tax. Corbyn is therefore visualised as a crook committing that attempts to scam the British public. Again the vast majority of this narrative is focussed on males. The Express advert being seen by 85% men, the one with dodgy scratch card writing delivered 53% to over 55 males and the ‘exposed’ one going to 84% males. Therefore the Tories in both demonization and lionisation are heavily focussing on the male vote.

Labour and the Lib Dems are not failing to pull their punches. A series of Labour adverts start with the following subject lines attacking the Prime Minister: ‘you can’t trust Boris Johnson’s Tories’, ‘Boris Johnson’s disastrous Brexit’, ‘only a vote for Labour can stop Boris Johnson’, ‘you can’t trust Boris Johnson with fracking’ then a picture of Boris in Yorkshire with the subject ‘you took your time Boris’. While Labours targeted advertisers are wary of publicising Jeremy Corbyn they are working hard to demonize Johnson. This was idea was further demonstrated in the ‘you can’t trust Boris Johnson with fracking video’, that started with a visual that listed a number of things that he could not be trusted with.

Interestingly this framing was being sent to 61% females, 82% of which were over 45. Similarly, the Lib Dems have started attacking Johnson through targeted advertising, posting an image of a clownish Johnson with the statement ‘BORIS JOHNSON IS NOT FIT TO BE PRIME MINISTER’. This then links through to a petition ‘Sack Boris Johnson… he made an authoritarian power grab by unlawfully shutting down Parliament. And he misled the Queen to do it’. Therefore both parties are charging with the idea that Johnson is a liar who cannot be trusted as Prime Minister.

There are some key narratives and trends being pushed online. The Conservatives are advertising Johnson as James Bond to younger males but also are willing to let him play the fool. Labour have confined the lionisation of Corbyn to his massive social media following while focussing targeted adverts mainly on party policy. On the other hand, Jo Swinson brand can be found in name and image throughout Lib Dem advertising. At the same time as building heroes, campaigns are actively painting villains. For the Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn is being framed as a fraudulent dodgy character, while both Labour and the Lib Dems run with the simple assertion that Boris Johnson simply cannot be trusted. While it may be early doors for the election, narratives gain strength through their repetition and assimilation into the public imagination. It is therefore likely, that through targeted adverts, users will continually meet these heroes and villains in the coming month.

Dec 2019