Neil C writes:
I was asked to contribute to a piece in today's Herald about the advertising campaigns running to support the two opposing sides in the imminent Scottish independence referendum.
Here's what I wrote:
Two independence referendum ads have been running this week, one from the pro-independence Yes campaign and one from anti-independence Better Together. Both groups of campaigners will have hoped to generate discussion and debate around their ads and BT has certainly done that, though surely not in the way they intended. Public reaction to the BT ad has been overwhelmingly negative, with people describing it as patronising and offensive towards women.
Some say that it perpetuates a stereotypical view of women as failing to understand politics. Online, the #PatronisingBTLady hashtag and meme gained a lot of traction, with some amusing responses, many of which can be seen at the Patronising BT Lady Facebook page.
Why have the two ads generated such different responses? Both try to appeal to the emotions. But each takes a very different approach.
The Yes campaign’s “Yes Means” film is a sunny, optimistic montage featuring Scots of all ages preparing for a new day. “Look out world, here I come,” says a long-haired student, as highland lochs sparkle, children play happily in the sunshine, and active old folks joyfully dance in a presumably comfortable and fulfilling retirement. The ad ends with a classic, perhaps clichéd, symbol of hope – a baby’s hand reaching for that of its parent.
The No campaign’s ad, “The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind” also references the next generation, but in a very different way. This film features only one character: a housewife, sitting in her kitchen, who talks directly to the viewer as if to a friend who’s dropped in for coffee. The housewife feels she lacks the facts required to make an informed decision about independence. “All this uncertainty bothers me so much,” she says. The more I think about it, independence seems like one big gamble”. She seems anxious but “There’s one thing I do know: I will not be gambling with my children’s future….So that’ll be a no from me.”
One positive ad that offers optimism, one negative one that evokes fear. One says – vote yes in the hope of something better. The other says – vote no for fear of something worse. Which approach is more likely to be successful? There’s no clear evidence as to whether positive or negative messages are more effective in political campaigning. Obama swept to power on the back of a message of “hope” but arguably Britain’s most famous political ad is “Labour Isn’t Working”, the iconic poster of the Conservatives’ successful 1979 general election campaign. So you could argue that either approach can be successful, it just depends on how well you do it.
How well have the Yes and No campaigns done it here? The No film appears to be a potentially disastrous mistake. The undecided woman is transparently a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from spare parts of strategy and research group comments. At no point do we believe in her as a living person with real concerns that we can share. She’s a voter segmentation profile brought unconvincingly to life – “Fearful Fiona”. It’s easy to see why the ad has been criticised and in places ridiculed for its patronising approach.
The “Sunshine On Leith” approach of the Yes ad, on the other hand, presents a range of likeable characters who are proud and positive about the future. We don’t believe in them as real people, they’re obviously actors, but they’re not so obviously fake as to undermine the message. This is a feel-good, confident piece of work with a welcoming, upbeat tone.
For any ad, the ultimate test is whether it moves us and makes us feel and think differently. Which of these has the power to do that? Ironically, Fearful Fiona, the ad that all too obviously tries hard to show that it understands voters, gets it so badly wrong that it has the reverse of the intended effect: it shows that BT don’t understand women voters at all. We can’t empathise with this implausible character and we feel irritated and patronised.
The Yes ad presents a vision of Scotland that is arguably a bit too much Coca-Cola, not enough Irn Bru, to touch the heart as powerfully as it might have done, but its more sympathetic characters and rousing mood do inspire feelings of pride, of optimism and of hope. In the battle of the ads at least, the Ayes have it.