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The invisible election: how big data replaced the big idea

Campaigns built on targeted digital messaging rather than traditional big-and-bold bill posters mean high-profile political advertising may have gone the same way as the Tory majority.

The invisible election: how big data replaced the big idea

If anyone still doubted social media’s ability to play a role in elections, the sheer volume of Brits logging on to register to vote should have brought them round. Average daily online registrations quadrupled after a Facebook campaign began on 12 May. 

This should come as no surprise to those who paid any attention to the US and UK elections of the past two years. The victors of the UK general election in 2015, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and the US presidential race all used social media more effectively than their opponents. But, after a campaign in which the Conservative Party bombarded voters in target seats with attack ads on Facebook and grime stars lined up to film their own videos with Jeremy Corbyn, is what we have seen over the past two months demonstrably different from what has come before?

The Conservatives defied the odds – and the polls – to deliver an outright majority in 2015 with the help of a sophisticated social campaign. Working from Tory HQ, digital consultancy Edmonds Elder targeted voters in marginal constituencies to warn them about the "risk" of a Labour government propped up by the Scottish National Party. 

The message, which was devised by the Conservatives’ election supremo Lynton Crosby and crystallised in M&C Saatchi’s "Pocket Miliband" ad, was hammered home where it mattered with targeting sharp enough to make an elite US Marine blush. The Tories reached 80% of  Facebook users in key marginal constituencies, a study published by the platform revealed.

According to The Electoral Commission, the Conservatives were responsible for almost 90% (£1.2m) of the money that political parties spent directly with Facebook in 2015. To put that in perspective, Labour was recorded to have handed over just £16,455 – although the total figure is reported to be closer to £130,000 when partnerships and campaigns booked through third parties are included.

The elections in the UK and the US in 2015 and 2016 have been characterised as populist uprisings that defeated a so-called elite with the combination of inflammatory language and technology. As the Remain camp toured adland for big ideas, the Leave campaign pumped out provocative and simplistic films – underpinned by the unifying message of "take back control" – to people who it knew could swing the result. Campaign director Dominic Cummings says Vote Leave spent 98% of its budget on digital advertising, dropping the majority of it "right at the end". 

Across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton reprised Barack Obama’s once- re-volutionary digital strategy based on demographics and polling data. But the Donald Trump campaign and its partner Cambridge Analytica left her behind with their digital targeting based on, among other things, supposed personality quizzes on Facebook. Trump’s machine was so sophisticated, it distributed ads linking to as many as 100,000 different web pages in a single day.

But some people are concerned about the data used for digital targeting in political campaigns. Midway through this election period, the Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation into whether digitally targeted political ads were unlawful. The ICO is looking at practices used ahead of the referendum vote but also in other campaigns – including this year’s. The investigation follows questions over the role Cambridge Analytica played in the referendum. Despite saying it was working with Leave.EU at the time, Cambridge Analytica now denies any involvement. 

"Artificial intelligence and big data have been given a really bad name. Big data can be used to be socially responsible" Louis Knight-Webb, Who Targets Me

We won’t know quite how much the parties have spent on online targeted ads until The Electoral Commission publishes the final spending returns for this election next year, but Louis Knight-Webb of digital democracy project Who Targets Me says the "other parties are matching the spend of the Tories in 2015" (a source close to Labour disputed that it matched the Tories’ 2015 Facebook budget). The 19-year-old co-founded Who Targets Me in April to find out how the political parties were using targeted digital advertising ahead of the general election after becoming alarmed by its use in previous votes. 

Once he had come up with the idea of creating a plug-in that could track targeted advertising, Knight-Webb quit his job to concentrate on the project. At the time of writing, Who Targets Me had 11,700 volunteers and had measured four million ad impressions across 2,000 unique party ads. "Artificial intelligence and big data have been given a really bad name," Knight-Webb claims. "This is a way big data can be used to be socially responsible."

Knight-Webb says he was surprised it "took so long for the campaigning to get started". But the parties ramped up their activity in the final three weeks. In its first set of figures, published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on 15 May, 44 of the 68 ads tracked by Who Targets Me on Facebook were from the Liberal Democrats or their leader Tim Farron. Labour was behind with 14 and the Tories just ten. By the day before the vote, Who Targets Me was monitoring an average of 16.1 users across 646 of 650 constituencies.

There are wider concerns about digital advertising beyond whether people’s personal data is being used properly. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK, eloquently argued in a Spectator column that the increased use of targeting undermines democracy. If different communities only see partial manifestos, how do they know they are making an informed choice? Sutherland will never see the "student debt or grime" ads that flooded Knight-Webb’s feed. 

The Conservative ads tracked by Who Targets Me in mid-May were most focused in message, all attacking Corbyn by name. In contrast, only two of Labour’s 14 ads mentioned Theresa May. This continued as the campaign developed, with the Conservatives focusing on delivering Brexit and the dangers of Corbyn, according to Knight-Webb’s co-founder Sam Jeffers, while Labour advertised to encourage young people to register to vote and promote the popular policies in its manifesto.

Labour hired Krow in November amid rumours of an early election. Another vote seemed unlikely at the time, but Krow worked with the party on its general strategy, helping to settle on the "For the many, not the few" line in January. Interestingly, given how the current Labour leadership feels about New Labour, the line appeared in the party’s 1997 manifesto. Krow’s work for Labour included an outdoor ad attacking the government for nurses’ use of food banks, after May stumbled on the subject, and – in the last week of the campaign – an online film encouraging girls and young women to get their family to vote Labour for them. 

Labour’s extensive digital team produced the majority of content for the party in-house. Online videos featured celebrities such as Kate Nash and Rob Delaney. After two leadership elections in as many years, Corbyn’s supporters in organisations such as Momentum and the People’s Assembly, as well as publications including The Canary, were well-practised at whipping up additional enthusiasm online. And then there was the organic "#GrimeForCorbyn" campaign that saw artists including Stormzy endorse the Labour leader and JME interview him for i-D (now part of Vice Media). 

Corbyn was also the only leader on Snapchat, a platform he used to update followers in real time. Labour also paid for a Snapchat filter for its supporters to use after they had voted on 8 June. Giles Kenningham, director of communications for the Conservatives’ 2015 general election campaign and founder of Trafalgar Strategy, says he was surprised other politicians did not make better use of the platform. "Snapchat has quite high levels of engagement," Kenningham explains. "And its users understand things are less polished, so it can be useful when it comes to authenticity."

The Tories produced their ads in-house, despite M&C Saatchi repeatedly offering its services. Sources suggest Crosby kept the party’s long-term collaborators at "arm’s length". The Conservatives are believed to have spent up to £3m on Facebook this time around, alongside activity on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Google search, where they attempted to diffuse criticism of their social care policy. In an ultimately ill-fated move, the Tories targeted ads at people in Labour seats they were hoping to gain, at the expense of  protecting Conservative constituencies.

Although the digital advertising took most of the headlines, the majority of the Conservatives’ election cash is understood to have been spent on direct mail. Continuing the traditional media theme, the Tories also reprised the cover-wraps they successfully bought across regional papers for the local elections, again targeting Labour areas. The wrap on the Barnsley Chronicle caused much consternation but had little effect – the area’s four Labour MPs were duly re-elected.

Trevor Beattie, chairman of BMB and a long-time Labour collaborator, is highly critical of the Tory campaign. "The Conservatives were slaves to the press release, and the robotic repetition of its contents. To keep saying ‘Strong and stable’ and ‘Coalition of chaos’ over and over and over again went way beyond a joke. 

"The sad, ironic postscript to it all is that impending chaos has been the net result. Always be careful of what you robotically wish for."

Alongside formal videos featuring May speaking next to Union Jacks, the Conservatives’ online ads attacked Corbyn and – increasingly in the closing stages – shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. Labour cried foul over a Conservative online video on Corbyn and the IRA. It racked up more than 8.1 million views on Facebook and 1.4 million on YouTube (stats that tell their own story about the power balance in online video). But, although it received a similar audience to televised party political broadcasts, there was no industry body for Labour to complain to. 

Ofcom can only consider TV and radio broadcasts and even then just look at whether party political broadcasts give "unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations", not wider complaints about the accuracy of content. The Advertising Standards Authority does not have jurisdiction over political ads – an issue that came to the fore last year when the Leave camp claimed on a bus that it would spend the £350m supposedly saved from exiting the EU on the NHS.

The Lib Dems worked with a volunteer team of about 30 suits, creatives, designers and art-makers from McCann Birmingham and Bristol. The McCann team gave them up to 70 ideas during the campaign including party political broadcast scripts, posters and social media treatments. Output included an online video featuring May as a sock puppet. 

"The main audience for the Lib Dems was concerned Remainers," Jon Elsom, group creative director at McCann Birmingham, Bristol and Milton Keynes, says. "The main thrust was how hard a Brexit Theresa May is pushing for. One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate this was linking her to Nigel Farage."

In Twickenham, Vince Cable unveiled a McCann poster featuring Farage’s face superimposed on to May’s body as he successfully campaigned to retake the seat. The PR punch of the image generated a number of headlines across national media, significantly outweighing the adspend behind it. It is understood that scepticism within the Conservative campaign about the role of posters and journalists’ appetite for writing about them was part of the reason the Tories did not use M&C Saatchi. This might have been a miscalculation: even if the national media’s interest in poster unveilings is waning, the major launches were covered.

Some independent agencies also got involved. Creature of London – which for last year’s local and London mayoral elections had a viral hit with "The not so secret life of the 5 year old politicians"  – re-united with the Green Party. It turned around a tongue-in-cheek film featuring a family playing a ruthless board game in less than two weeks. Meanwhile, Now created a number of posters for the Women’s Equality Party, highlighting its childcare policy and the gender pay gap, as well as an online video featuring Jessica Hynes re-prising her W1A and Twenty Twelve role as PR guru Siobhan Sharpe.

Women’s Equality Party: marketing featured comedian Hynes

Yet none of the parties came up with major visual ideas. Was this the election when the political poster died? The most conceptual ad ideas were not even new. The Conservatives revived their 1992 "Tax bombshell" ad. Krow played homage to another Tory message from 1992 with its poster warning of a "triple whammy" for pensioners. McCann Birmingham and Bristol’s Farage poster for the Lib Dems was reminiscent of TBWA and Beattie’s 2001 Labour ad merging William Hague and Margaret Thatcher.

Liberal Democrats: McCann’s May/Farage hybrid recalled Thatcher/Hague poster

In fact, many people might not have seen any political advertising at all. "This election for many people was the invisible election," Chris Quigley, co-founder of digital consultancy Delib, says. "I live in Lambeth, a safe Labour area, and didn’t see any campaigning, didn’t see any messaging. We’ve entered an era of data. The key reason is our electoral system. The first-past-the-post system means only a few seats matter, so people focus on those seats."

If May attempted to ape Farage, Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron’s success by placing her personal image at the heart of the 2017 campaign, it proved a costly mistake. Instead, it was Labour that benefited from personality politics, as people warmed to Corbyn as they got to know him. Debbie Klein, Engine’s chief executive, Europe and Asia, says: "Rather than expecting people to share stuff about the bigger picture, it’s about building a personal brand. We’re seeing the rise of branded politics."

"People can consume news from lots of different sources, which allows them to understand what the parties stand for. You have to have consistency; without it, you don’t have conviction or authenticity."

Despite agencies being involved in some of the campaigns – Krow aside – they were used purely for execution. In fact, a source close to the Conservative Party, speaking after it failed to gain a majority, was dismissive of the role agency strategists can play in political campaigns: "We don’t need a 23-year-old from South Africa telling us about strategy. Where agencies add value is creative." Yet the Conservatives’ communications lacked a unifying thought, a big idea that brought their disparate messages together.

"Taking policy and working out how to execute it [as the Conservatives did] isn’t strategy, it’s the Daily Mail," John Quarrey, a co-founder of Krow, says. "Agencies know how to translate policies into ideas. Labour was the only party to have ideas. Ideas that connected to people."

"What people want is consistency in messaging," Kenningham agrees. "People can consume news from lots of different sources, which allows them to understand what the parties stand for. You have to have consistency; without it, you don’t have conviction or authenticity."

All the parties tried to learn from the successes and failures of elections from previous years. The Conservatives spent a lot of money informing people about things they already knew about May or Corbyn rather than persuading them that it was OK to switch sides. Adland’s declining role reflects the move away from broad democratic campaigning but, with the media and debate increasingly polarised, the need for agencies’ ability to hone ideas and messaging into a unified solution has never been greater. 

"The hideous amounts of cash ploughed into Facebook and other platforms by the Conservatives, to little or no end, demands that we stop fetishising these platforms when there is no meaning driving the messages we place in them and no broader narrative about the brand or business," Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, insists. "The Conservatives have learned to their cost (political and financial) that messaging with no meaning, however good the targeting, creates little traction in the real world."

Advertisers such as Procter & Gamble have realised belatedly that their focus on targeting was counterproductive. Some companies are reappraising traditional formats and Tesco has partially reversed its previous cuts to print. Had the Conservatives been successful in increasing their majority, you would have been forgiven for expecting the UK’s electoral system to conspire against political parties having the same Damascene conversion. As it was, Labour’s unexpected surge wasn’t enough to give it a majority but gives all the parties something to think about.