A week after an historic referendum in Britain, a strategic communications analysis of two campaigns offers another perspective on why the Leave campaign proved to be more successful. While socio-economic, cultural and psychological factors have undoubtedly framed the political discourse and provided context for debates, both campaigns adopted and used classic propaganda methods to achieve their objectives.
The analysis will review slogans, campaign materials and propaganda methods used by both campaign teams to demonstrate comparative strengths and weaknesses in adopted approaches. As it happened, the team behind the Leave campaign was more focused, which may at least in part account for the ultimate win.
Every campaign is a war of words and strategic placement of slogans or messages to reach a target audience. At the outset, the Leave team scored big. The entire referendum was widely referred to as “Brexit”, foreshadowing Britain leaving the European Union – but also positioning the Leave campaign as the brand leader.
While both campaigns had simple titles (“Vote Leave” and “Vote Remain”, respectively), the Leave camp had a stronger slogan. “Vote Leave, Take Control” had empowering, if populist, overtones and a clear call for action. The slogan had rhythm and can readily be imagined as a memorable war cry rallying the troops behind a cause. In contrast, the Remain campaign opted for “Britain Stronger in Europe”, which lacks a strong rhythmic measure or any other mnemonic device, such as rhyming, that might fix the brand in the minds of a target audience.
The Leave campaign picked up the slogan in its URL (voteleavetakecontrol.org), reinforcing the main message. The Remain camp, on the other hand, opted for a shortened version of its campaign message (strongerin.co.uk) which could have had the opposite effect, subtly suggesting that Britons are “stronger in” the UK.
On producing campaign material, the Leave and Remain camps took quite different approaches. Take the campaign websites for example. Both offered followers campaign material for supporting the cause.
The Leave campaign opted for simplified and limited content, mostly repeating the core message of “Vote Leave, Take Control.”
The Leave campaign focused on one core figure, the “£350 million a week” it claimed the UK gave to the EU. Indeed, this claim was painted on the side of the campaign bus. The campaign website offered supporters two simple handouts: a flyer with 5 reasons to leave, and a 20-page leaflet by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, along with simple signage displaying the campaign slogan. The campaign distilled its arguments for why Britain should leave the EU into a short presentation.
An entire page on the Leave website was dedicated to social sharing, breaking down 15 key messages – always with a visual – for supporters to easily post on social networks.
The Leave campaign even offered supporters a mobile app that was promoted throughout the website via a floating prompt. The app seemed to gamify the referendum, offering a leaderboard to chart the campaign’s success tying it to the user’s efforts at engaging friends.
The Leave Campaign also published 41 videos to YouTube, mostly of events with campaigners speaking (31.71%), clips aimed at sowing doubt (31.71%) or more persuasive messaging (34.15%).
In summary, while the Leave campaign offered less content, its simple message was reproduced through various online, print and mobile platforms to clearly amplify a core sentiment: UK citizens need to be in control of their destiny.
Contrast this with the Vote Remain campaign – which opted for volume of content over simplified messaging.
The Remain campaign offered posters calling voters to choose the EU, but omitted the main message of “Britain Stronger in Europe”. Instead, Remain campaign posters featured various URLs (e.g. strongerin.co.uk; strongerin.scot; and strongerin.wales) that spoke to regional differences. While in theory, the targeted marketing increases appeal to different audiences, thus elevating chances for success, the delivery approach taken here was a clear misconception – a mistake similar to the overall campaign slogan outlined above. Each of these regional posters featured an URL ‘encouraging’ audiences to perceive themselves as stronger where they are, for example that Scottish voters are stronger in Scotland, and likewise in Welsh voters in Wales.
Other campaign posters failed to offer a better future, but instead focused on the uncertainty of change. This did not address the issues raised by the Leave campaign, nor did it offer a brighter future for staying in the EU, which positioned the Remain camp as a fear-mongering group incapable of articulating positive alternatives – a positioning that the Leave camp was quick to pick up on calling the opponent approach “Project Fear”.
The Remain campaign offered ten “condensed reports”, and ten “full reports” of varying lengths, clearly putting the onus on the public to educate themselves in making an informed choice. The combined number of pages posted by the Remain campaign was 194 to Vote Leave’s 29.
While the Remain campaign also attempted to make it easy for supporters to share campaign material, the “Get the Facts” website page was as dizzying and overwhelming as the volume of expert-backed reports. With 25 bullet points and 32 different images or videos that could be shared (more than twice the number posted by Vote Leave), this approach aimed to inform voters, sharing a variety of statistics, but failed to be repetitive and offer the public simple messaging that would stay at the forefront of minds.
Likewise, the Remain YouTube channel exhibited the same focus on quantity and variety of content. The Remain campaign posted 110 videos, more than 2.5 times the number posted by Leave camp, with a greater emphasis on attempting to inform the viewer with statistics or expert opinions (32.73% to the other side’s 19.51%).
The Remain campaign did enjoy considerably more YouTube views with a total of 12.46 million to Vote Leave’s 2.48 million, more average views at 98,498 per video, versus 60,506, and more “thumbs up” averaging 813 per video over 246. However, the Leave campaign enjoyed fewer thumbs down votes averaging 100 per video to Vote Remain’s 357.
As opposed to a slick mobile app, the Remain campaign opted for “influence marketing” gimmicks, such as “Talk to Gran” and the “Women in Network”, which encouraged supporters to persuade those around them. In theory, using influencers is a marketing tactic that is generally touted as effective. Indeed, as far as textbook approaches go, the Women in Network was carefully launched in conjunction with International Women’s Day – making it highly topical. However, both attempts to use supporters to sway others rang hollow – almost as if they were both a little too staged, too by-the-book. Given the demographics around who voted to leave, one might almost wonder if “talking to gran” didn’t backfire a bit.
Messaging seemed to be a constant problem for the Remain campaign. Of the 110 videos, several were rather lacklustre “INside Track” updates from campaign manager Will Straw that struggled to stick to a key persuasive message. In the example below, Straw tells the viewer, in a rather unenthusiastic tone that on one hand everyone is behind the remain camp, but at the same time many people still need convincing. The “bandwagon” effect, a propaganda device, is lost in the admission that not everyone is really behind them.
The Remain campaign made a grave mistake in assuming that facts and information would be enough to sway voters – even in the face of mistruths or lies. While the altruism behind the idea that accurate information should win-over a target audience is appealing – it’s just not always likely to succeed. Human brains are structured such that people can make decisions quickly. Cognitive heuristics, such as satisficing actually discourage people from digging too deeply into mass amounts of information, instead searching only as far as an available alternative meets an acceptability threshold. In other words, if an answer is found to be sufficient, why bother looking further?
Campaigns as Propaganda
In this section, we will review some of the classic propaganda methods used in political campaigns, which were employed during the referendum.
Both the Leave and Remain campaigns were propagandistic, in that both of them used deliberate and systematic communication with the aim of persuading voters. Their respective campaign content represented their own perspectives, slanted in an attempt to “achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”
Using the Institute for Propaganda Analysis’ Seven Propaganda Devices developed in the 1930s as a basis to assess available material put forth by both campaigns’ is insightful. Both campaigns used most of the Seven Propaganda Devices – but each did so differently.
|Name Calling||Trick to make an audience accept a conclusion without full consideration of essential facts in the case.||✅||✅|
|Band Wagon||A trick used to seize an audience’s emotions, to make them follow the political Pied Pipers and bring others along.||✅||✅|
|Glittering Generalities||An attempt to sway emotions through the use of shining ideals or virtues, such as freedom, justice, truth, Education, democracy in a large, general way.||✅||✅|
|Flag Waving||A trick in which the propagandist holds up a symbol, such a flag, that an audience recognizes and respects.||✅|
|“Plain Folks ”||A trick in which the propagandist demonstrates they are like the rest of the audience or just plain folk.||✅||✅|
|Testimonial||Best represented by the straw vote, this trick involves getting not only good, plain, solid citizens, but also social and business leaders to endorse the party or the candidate.||✅|
|Stacking the Cards||A trick in which the propagandist intentionally or unintentionally stacks the cards against the facts.||✅||✅|
Name Calling encourages audiences to “accept a conclusion without full consideration of essential facts in the case.” By calling something stupid, without providing further information as to why it is so, the campaigner deflects attention away from what is important. Both camps resorted to name calling.
Vote Leave rebranded the Remain campaign “Project Fear”, with Boris Johnson calling Cameron’s arguments “baloney” and remainers “depressing”. Whereas the Remain campaign created personal attacks on the key Brexit figures, and campaigners suggested that leaving was “crazy” and that Boris Johnson had “gone off the rails.”
And while not name calling per se, both camps attempted to use doubt to dissuade voters from believing or following the opposition.
The Bandwagon device is an attempt to make audiences believe that many others are already on board, encouraging them to follow, via peer pressure as well. Both camps encouraged voters to believe that they had the support of the masses, however, Vote Remain did so more often than did Vote Leave.
In comparing YouTube videos, Vote Leave appeared to mention the masses as supporting them in general statements, or in sweeping shots of crowds at an event.
The Vote Remain campaign, on the other hand, put more focus on suggesting that people supported them (not always successfully, as the example above of Will Straw shows). Half of Vote Remain’s videos featured people appearing to not be part of the campaign all espousing why Britain should remain in the EU, suggesting that they had the support of many.
Both camps relied on glittering generalities, attempting “to sway emotions through the use of shining ideals or virtues, such as freedom, justice, truth, Education, democracy in a large, general way.”
Boris Johnson did so in stating “We on our side who offer hope”. So too did David Cameron in suggesting that the “
Flag waving is the use of “symbols, such as a flag,” that audiences know and respect.
Flag waving was a much greater facet of the Leave campaign. In addition to a general tone of seeking to take back Britain and make it great again, Vote Leave made use of British “heroes” to help speak to patriotic sentiments.
The Remain campaign did not do this as overtly as did Vote Leave. Instead, Vote Remain attempted to subtly pick up on regional diversity by using a variety of accents in voice overs, and as mentioned above, targeted campaign posters for Scotland and Wales.
“Plain Folks ”
Both camps attempted to position themselves on the side of the people.
Michael Gove attempted to do this for the Leave campaign in an interview stating: “I’m not asking the public to trust me, I‘m asking the public to trust themselves. I am asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, and elitist.”
The Leave campaign also attempted to tie itself to a major pool on predicting the European Football Championship winners, posting a promo for the pool and having the campaign’s logo featured on the contest’s website. While this isn’t a claim made by Vote Leave that it was a part of the people, it was a clear attempt to reflect itself among “plain folk” who watch football through brand placement.
While key Remain campaign figures did not attempt to position themselves as “plain folk”, per se, they featured regular people in 10% of their videos suggesting that the average person was behind them.
Judging by YouTube content, the Leave camp did not employ testimonials at all like Vote Remain did. In fact, Vote Leave outwardly attacked the Remain campaign’s dependence on expert opinion, with Michael Gove infamously claiming that the British people “have had enough of experts.”
Given that more than one third of all Vote Remain’s videos featured testimonials from experts and others (such as war veterans), it is clear why Michael Gove was so dismissive. Without the experts to back Vote Leave’s campaign, it was easier to simply cast the lot aside and dismiss the overwhelming background information provided by the opponent. Moreover, given how much information was provided by Vote Remain, coupled with the complexity of most expert arguments, it can also be expected that many Britons might have shared Gove’s viewpoint.
Nonetheless, testimonials is a propaganda device that was used – perhaps too much – by Vote Remain and to their detriment, it would seem now.
Stacking the Cards
Stacking the cards is a propaganda device that emphasizes one side of an argument while repressing the other. Technically, both sides engaged in this when presenting only their side of an issue. In an apple to apple comparison, both camps attempted to present visions of the future to sway voters.
Vote Leave did so in contrasting the future of the NHS – showing that choosing to Remain would result in delays and poor treatment.
Vote Remain presented a future if Britain chose to leave that foretold economic collapse and ruin.
Of course, the most egregious example of card stacking was the Vote Leave’s use of “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” This sum did not take into account all of the subsidies and rebates the UK received back from the EU.
The Formula of Persuasion
As polls demonstrated, the Leave campaign was more successful. Far from claiming the success was principally due to a carefully executed strategic communications campaign, the analysis and lessons learned shed light on which communications methods and devices may have contributed to the outcome above others. While both campaigns did employ propaganda devices, creating similar types of content and using the same distribution channels, their approach to persuasion were quite different.
The Leave campaign chose a more populist and simplified approach, putting emphasis on the problem or threat (£350 million a week going to the EU, unlimited immigration), focusing on an enemy (the EU Fat Cats), and presenting an easy solution (take back control, leave the EU). In creating simplified messaging, limiting the amount of content, the campaign was able to stay on message, all the time. The Leave campaign was also more successful at presenting the need to leave the EU in terms an average person could readily understand – all while making it easy to participate and share information.
The Remain campaign, on the other hand, focused on informing voters (presenting an overwhelming amount of data), backing up statistics with expert opinions and using doubt to dissuade voters from choosing to leave the EU. Yet with all the facts to back them, the Remain vote failed to present an inspirational view of the future that would emotionally appeal to voters. While they could offer seemingly unending and sound reasons why Britain should stay, the Vote Remain campaign failed to capture hearts over minds and was unable to address or even quell the fears of those who leaned towards leaving.
While we all would like to believe that the democratic voting mass is made up of reasonable, educated people, the Brexit referendum should stand as an alarming example of how untrue that ideal is in reality. The fact is, simplified messaging that resonates with target audiences and inspires them – be it to love or to hate – is a more effective approach than one based on logic and statistics. Indeed, despite the Remain campaign publishing reams of information about the benefits of staying in the EU, many people were found to be searching “what does it mean to leave the EU” and “what is the EU” following the vote in Britain. Regardless of how much information was available, it would appear people didn’t read it before.