The Tory's IRA attack ad on Corbyn signposts the future for political ads

The Conservatives’ web ad attacking Jeremy Corbyn for his approach to security has chalked up millions of views online. It marks a watershed in modern British campaigning: the time digital campaigning finally came to prominence.  

The success of the Tories’ ad lies partly in the power of its message and its slick production values. It makes for compelling viewing and stirs viewers’ emotions – one way or another. Labour has complained that the ad takes Corbyn's quotes on the IRA out of context through its editing.

But its real success – and indeed the new power of digital communications in political campaigns - derives from two developments: Facebook’s prioritisation of visual content; and, more importantly, the growth in new technology that allows vastly more accurate voter targeting. 

British politics is now about to promote the sorts of aggressive, often negative ad campaigns that we’ve seen in the US

These developments together mean – for the first time – that the parties can guarantee swing voters in marginal seats will see persuasive visual images. Party strategists know the money spent on such campaigns is money that’s wisely spent.

Facebook and YouTube’s own platforms obviously make microtargeting easier than ever before. Any organisation – political or commercial – has the ability to target messages down to the postcode level. But for political parties, that’s only theoretically useful unless they have massive amounts of intelligence from the ground to decide which postcodes to target.

In the last few years, technology has developed to the extent that parties can now meld together polling data, commercial marketing firms’ data on local lifestyles, Government data from the census and other public records, social media firms’ data and their own data secured through activists calls, door knocking and their own general experience.

All of this can be used to create an accurate picture both of the parties’ typical voter generically (on a national basis), together with an accurate picture of where local areas might be politically.

None of this is rocket science, of course. It’s merely the next iteration of a methodology that political and commercial advertisers have been following for decades – a methodology designed to know as much about the customer / voter as possible and how best to reach them.

But the result is revolutionary for political campaigns in that it means the web is now the primary vehicle for political communication in a way it wasn’t even a few years ago. This has four major implications for British politics. 

A major proportion of the parties’ communications will take place away from the prying eyes of the media and the Electoral Commission

The first is that British politics is now about to promote the sorts of aggressive, often negative ad campaigns that we’ve seen in the US. Now that practically the entire electorate is online and used to consuming video content on screens, and now that the parties are confident their pounds will buy voters' attention, strategists are going to flood the web with what are effectively TV ads. The Tories’ ad on Corbyn is now unusual but, by the time of the next election, such ads will become the norm.

The second, related, implication, is that British politics is likely to become more emotional. The parties’ traditional reliance on press and broadcast means politicians have rarely spoken directly to the electorate. Journalists have played an intermediary role. Now that they’re talking directly to the electorate through advertising, they’ll be able to unleash the most powerful communications techniques. We’ll start to see far more emotional appeals from politicians – in the form of speeches, made-for-web events and of course advertising.

There’s one thing that remains constant: the mind of the voter

The third implication is that a major proportion of the parties’ communications will take place away from the prying eyes of the media and the Electoral Commission. Traditionally, parties have held press conferences to launch national poster campaigns – and there’s been a public conversation around the quality and suitability of the ads that they’ve run. Now, parties are running often hastily-constructed, hyper-targeted ads that never pass in front of a Westminster journalist or a potential regulator. It’s likely that the Electoral Commission will look into this in the future.

The fourth implication is that parties in time will create their own algorithms designed to run their marketing campaigns without hourly human interference. With text recognition software already in use, it surely won’t be long until parties are able to create machines that read local social media dialogue and target ads in reaction. If a particular area was clearly obsessed with the issue of crime, for example, the party’s algorithm might choose to place a crime ad in the vicinity online.

But in all this, there’s one thing that remains constant: the mind of the voter. While political marketing techniques might change and while the platforms might be different, the job of the party campaigns is still to get people to vote for them. Ultimately, the power of the candidate and his or her message is the most important thing. While robots might do an increasing amount of campaigning, the candidates will still be programming them.


James Frayne is director of public opinion specialists Public First and a former director of communications at the Department for Education

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).