Why marketing ruined the election

In the run-up to the general election, the political parties willingly embraced calls for them to adopt marketing thinking, but marketing should have no place in deciding the future direction of the country, writes Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer of AMV BBDO.

Nigel Farage grimaces on a live election TV debate
Nigel Farage grimaces on a live election TV debate

Sometimes we have a funny relationship with our profession. Occasionally under attack, we feel the need to defend ourselves and then get forced into silly positions.

Marketing treats us all as consumers – we ask people to pay a price and receive goods or services in exchange

Sometimes we seem to assume that if marketing is good, it must be good for everything, and, conversely, if we concede there are areas where marketing is inappropriate, then we feel we are somehow admitting it is always and inherently inappropriate.

This is nonsense and has been exposed as such by the election campaign, now drawing to a close. During the campaign, we have seen plenty of articles and coverage that referred to the parties as ‘brands’ and encouraged the leaders to adopt marketing thinking to win more votes.

And worse than that, the parties and their leaders seem to have wholeheartedly accepted this advice.

But choosing a government and the future direction of the country is somewhere that marketing has no place, as it encourages a range of dysfunctional behaviours that are not in our long-term interests.

Party, policies, promises and pledges

Marketing likes to simplify – we find USPs and condense our brands’ benefits to unambiguous concepts. But in an election, this encourages the parties to over-simplify complex issues.

Marketing likes slogans and gestures – we try to place simple, single ideas in the heads of our audience. But this has led our would-be leaders to talk in soundbites, about their "long-term economic plan" or "working people", rather than answering questions and sharing ideas.

Marketing likes slogans and gestures – we try to place simple, single ideas in the heads of our audience

Marketing treats us all as consumers – we ask people to pay a price and receive goods or services in exchange. But applied to politics, this makes the process of voting entirely selfish and transactional, whether you’re thinking about whether you will get a tax cut or a benefit payment.

Instead of being engaged as interdependent citizens, capable of having a grown-up conversation about the choices that face us, we are treated as consumers, with marketing campaigns encouraging us to grab this giveaway or that concession.

Distorted politics

We have accepted this idea for so long that many of you will already be internally tutting at me for being naïve or utopian, for even imagining that things should change or that people could treat politics any differently from the way they treat buying a new car or a chocolate bar.

But it is possible. Heated and partisan at times, the Scottish referendum campaign rekindled public debate about complex issues in town halls up and down the country. It had a lot to do with citizenship, very little to do with consumerism and nothing to do with marketing.

Marketing is fantastic for selling products and services, for building the intangible value that helps increase profits and for getting the customers’ voice at the heart of businesses. But it distorts and degrades politics.

Sometimes we need to be customers, sometimes we need to be citizens, they both have value, they both have their place. In our desire to promote marketing as a discipline, let’s not get them mixed up.

Craig Mawdsley is part of our Thinkers Hub, meet our other thinkers

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