Campaign against the misuse of simplicity

When the principles of good advertising are applied to politics, are we in big trouble?

In advertising, complexity is the enemy of cut-through – in a society that’s constantly bombarded with information, the more complicated a message is, the less likely it is that someone will read it.

That’s because complicated = time consuming and hard work.

I’m a busy person. I don’t want to read about your bloody product.

I don’t want you to explain to me how your engine produces fewer emissions. I just want to know I’m a good person for buying your car.

I don’t need to understand the power and relative efficiencies of your microchips – I just want a cool laptop that won’t be obsolete in two years. I don’t even know what a microchip does, if truth be told.

So advertisers (well, good ones) have recognised that when selling complex, nuanced products, that they need to simplify their message. They need to understand what’s REALLY important to the consumer, then zero in on that thing.

Focus on one thing, one benefit, one advertising idea – and say it in as simple a way as possible.

Find your message.

Just do it.

Coke is it.

It does exactly what it says on the tin.

When you’ve found your message, repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t stop. Keep driving that message home, over and over again. Don’t change it.

In every channel, in every media. At every opportunity.

It’s how you build understanding and trust. The more you hear something, the more likely you are to believe that it’s true.

It’s how advertising works.

Create a simple idea that people understand and keep repeating it. Eventually they begin to take notice of what you’re saying. They hear the same message on TV, on the radio, on social media.  They start to believe you’ve got a good product. They see your message on billboards, on buses, in newspapers. They become convinced it’s the best product, the only product for them. They see the same message in-store and they buy it.

And you repeat, repeat, repeat your message even after they’ve bought. Convince them they’ve done the right thing. So they buy again and again.

Keep it simple and repeat.

Over the years, politics has learned one or two things from the world of advertising.

Our political system is all about the fight for the centre ground. The real fight is in middle class Britain. Go too far left or right and you’re in for an electoral thrashing.

Ask Jeremy Corbyn.

And that means in reality, there’s not a huge chasm between the parties – both need to appeal to the middle-class swing voters, and for the most part they’re saying the same things. They’ll be responsible with the economy. They’ll tax fairly. They’ll be benevolent. But they’ll also be efficient. They’ll be tough on crime. They’ll invest in Britain etc.

So what they want to deliver is apparently pretty much the same as each other. The difference (in theory) lies in the way they’ll go about doing it – but even here, it’s not that different. The real differences lie in the nuances of policy, in the details.

And in the economics and operations of running a country, the details are REALLY important. Running an education system, running an NHS, building infrastructure, caring for the elderly… these are all VERY complicated beasts, requiring enormous levels of long-term planning.

But the problem with the detail, and with the complexities and the realities of government, is that for most people, it’s really, really boring.

Remember, there’s a lot of information out there.

If you try talking about the details, you’ll lose your audience before you’ve even started.

Bill Bernbach once said, “You can’t sell a man who isn’t listening”. Meaning, don’t try to talk about the details, the complexities, the nuances before you’re sure you have their attention. You don’t gain attention with detail. You gain attention with a short, simple, compelling message.

So in politics, subtlety is out.

If you’re talking to someone who’s already engaged with politics and interested in the details, then by all means talk about the complex stuff.

But most people don’t watch Newsnight.

Simple messages work in politics.

Get Brexit Done

This phrase constitutes a masterclass in marketing communications. And it worked on different levels.

Firstly, it was simple.

Secondly, it focused entirely on one thing – and that thing was something that people were genuinely tired of hearing about. Even if we didn’t want Brexit, we just wanted to stop arguing about it and move on. So it tapped into a mood.

Third, and this is the really clever (and disturbing) bit; politically, it allowed any Conservative candidate or representative to avoid talking about policy.

That’s right in any debate about policy. When questioned about the health service, employment, growth, immigration, care homes, pensions, energy, infrastructure… Conservative politicians were able to say “Let’s just get Brexit done, then we’ll be in a better position to sort out <insert policy area here>”

It had the effect of reducing any other issue to a secondary debate – nothing was more important than getting Brexit done. And the public heard this message so often – in every television interview or debate, on social media, on billboards, in newspapers etc – that they began to repeat it themselves. You’d hear the phrase on radio phone-ins, “We just need to get Brexit done” from Mary in Chipping Norton, “Let’s get Brexit done” from Charlie in Newcastle.

We heard it so often, everywhere we went from politicians and public alike, that somewhere in our consciousness we began to believe it was the right thing to do.

Labour wasn’t working

The Labour Party, on the other hand had a lot to say about policy. They wanted to talk about the issues, offer an alternative way forward for Britain. But the issues are complicated, and there are too many of them.

Labour had lots to say, but the people that mattered in the centre ground didn’t hear it. The Conservatives said one thing, and it was heard loud and clear.

The simplicity of the Conservatives’ message, for the Conservatives, was a triumph – to be celebrated. As a marketer, you can only applaud.

But as a society, we should be worried.

Here, simplicity was used to shut down debate. It did nothing to help people understand the issues of the day. It didn’t help people make informed decisions.

How can a country expect to have an effective democracy if our leaders reduce debates into sound bites?

And it’s not the only time this has happened, is it?

The EU Referendum in 2016 was reduced to a simple in/out vote. Based on what information?

“Take back control”

“Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe”

“We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”

An incredibly complex, nuanced political and cultural relationship with an entire continent, reduced to a bunch of unfounded, and in some cases hugely misleading claims.

And to make matters worse, because this was a political referendum there’s no law against lying. So politicians could say anything they wanted. Just make it up!

That’s no basis for a democracy.

When a truly informed debate is impossible because it’s being clouded by over-simplistic ideas, we should be concerned. And the influence of the advertising world should not be underestimated in this.

Is the trend toward simplicity in politics the fault of advertisers?

In short, no.

Advertising is about selling products, and usually products of very little consequence. There’s usually little harm in playing with people’s perceptions and propensity to buy a brand of baked beans.

Politics should be treated with more deference. It’s too important for sound bites. Politicians need to stop trying to reduce their arguments to the lowest common denominator.

That’s how dangerous people get into power. Donald Trump. Boris Johnson. And yes, Adolf Hitler.

People need to educate themselves and try to understand alternative points of view – to see the bigger picture. Simplicity of message in politics marks the failure of politicians to present the issues to the nation in a way that promotes sensible, rational debate.

Red versus blue.

In versus out.

What about collaboration? What about coalition? What about cooperation?

What about treating the electorate like adults?

What about politicians acting like adults?

In advertising and marketing, we relish the intellectual challenge of identifying what consumers care about and trying to position a product in their minds using a simple, memorable idea. It’s an important skill in a highly competitive environment.

We can have fun with it.

But when it comes to politics, we need to take it more seriously. The electorate needs to understand what it is voting for, and for that to happen we need to stop clouding the issues with cheap, memorable and often misleading slogans.


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