Sun, 19 May 2024

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The House Live All
By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Press releases

Are Tories Deliberately Posting Terrible Social Media?


6 min read

It’s difficult to decide what the most ridiculous aspect of the Conservative party’s now-deleted twitter ad actually was. It could have been the presence of the England football team, or a Canadian car and US jet, which suggested several ways the party was ignorant about which country they are actually governing.

Or perhaps it was the ugliness of the rudimentary collage, with thick white borders around cut-out images. Maybe it was its bathetic claim that Britain was the “second most powerful country in the world”. In the end it was the presence of the King that killed it due to a breach of the protocol that royals remain apolitical. “It is understood,” the Guardian noted, diplomatically, “the post had been noted by senior palace officials before it was deleted.” 

This would have been less striking had it not been the second such faux pas in as many weeks. The first was a party campaign video, complete with a growling American voiceover, which seemed to portray Sadiq Khan’s London as Batman’s Gotham City, filled with desperate people hiding from “squads of Ulez enforcers”. That was also swiftly deleted after someone noticed that stampede footage of ‘London’ was actually New York. It was soon reposted with the offending clip removed.

The ads might not have been good, but that didn’t stop them being widely shared on social media with a flurry of mocking commentary, and they also received write-ups in old-fashioned media. Which begs the question: did Conservative strategists make them deliberately bad knowing how much attention that would generate? 

“The beauty of doing really bad stuff is you reach beyond the political hardcore,” says Andrew Chadwick, professor of political communication at Loughborough University and the author of The Hybrid Media System. 

Collage Conservative party ad featuring King Charles and the England football team

There is precedent. In 2019 the Tories pumped out a series of ads with clashing colours and outlandish fonts, carrying the single message “Get Brexit Done” and it was widely assumed the rubbishness was knowing. Younger, left-leaning Twitter users may have found the Brexit ads embarrassing, but they still amplified them with “LOL, look at this nonsense” quote tweets, helping the message reach the more receptive audience (older, less politically engaged, more Facebook than Twitter) for whom it was intended. 

This year’s “London has fallen” and Great British Collage ads echo this perceived strategy as the Tories scramble to retain voters abandoning them for Reform UK. 

Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) has “hired people who are ex-Lad Bible, who know how to drive social shares,” according to  communications consultant James Whatley. “It wouldn’t surprise me if someone very, very smart is saying, ‘this is the kind of content that’s gonna rile up the base and the opposition’,” he said. While he agreed many may find the ads – and by extension the party – ridiculous, “we’re way past the bottom of the barrel now. If you’ve got the PM behind a placard saying ‘stop the boats’ every day, this is nothing”.

But most of the comms professionals approached for this piece preferred a simpler explanation: someone sucks at their job. “No professional marketing person I’ve ever met would deliberately set out to do something so shoddy and unprofessional,” says marketing strategist Irene Triendl. “You cannot plan virality, and the risk is simply too high.” 

Chadwick is also unconvinced the latest Tory ad was deliberately terrible. “It doesn’t look like a cause of so bad it’s sharable: it just looked like it was done in a rush,” he said.

The apparent incompetence of the ad being in a manner that got it deleted doesn’t  feel like a genius marketing strategy either. Plus, it’s not clear these ads did go viral beyond Twitter mocking and onto “groups who wouldn’t normally hear it” levels. If that was the plan, it didn’t work.

Then there’s the message itself. “Get Brexit Done” had clarity. But while rhetoric portraying cities like London or Birmingham as scary might plausibly shore up some votes in towns or rural areas, it seems an odd choice when both those cities are in the middle of mayoral elections. (“That’s a party that’s trying to get 20 per cent,” says one comms professional from an opposition party, “not one trying to get 30-40.”) The “Britain is great! But not the best one” message of the collage ad is hardly compelling stuff.

“I think they’re just shit,” says another opposition strategist, “and deliberate shitposting is a good retrospective excuse”. One which, he adds, the profusion of savvy tweets and articles like this means the party doesn’t even need to make for itself. 

There may be other explanations for the absurdity of these latest ads that don’t require anyone to be convinced they’re works of marketing genius. It’s possible, for example, that the interests of the Tory comms team and the party they work for have diverged. “When it all goes tits and up the social media team are out on their ear,” says Whatley, “they can say, we generated X million shares, we know how to drive conversation on social.” That may be pretty helpful in a competitive job market.

Chadwick, meanwhile, suggests this style reflects a sea-change in the nature of political comms. At one time parties would  “put a lot of effort into scripting and writing TV ads because you knew they would reach a large audience”. It’s now so easy to produce such content that “there’s a sense in campaign war rooms of, throw anything at the wall and see what sticks”.Tory comms people might not believe these kinds of ads will work, but if  they don’t know what will, what have they got to lose?

We’ll probably never know how much of this strategy was conspiracy, as opposed to cock up. On the one hand, “So bad it's sharable” may slip relatively easily into “so bad we have to delete it”; on the other, the fact it clearly hasn’t worked doesn't mean it was never the plan.

It’s worth noting, though, that the most damning comment I heard from anyone while reporting this piece came from a Tory strategist: “The conspiracy theory I’ve always liked the most is the one that presumes that behind something inexplicably dumb there must be some grand plan or deep rooted super secret scheme designed in these smokey backrooms of government. It’s terrifically flattering,” they explained.

“My god, I wish it were true. I mean, have you met us? We really are just this shit.”

Jonn Elledge's new book, A History of the World in 47 Borders: The Stories Behind the Lines on Our Maps, is published this month.

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