By Paul Baines
Just when we’re faced by the most momentous decision on the EU for 40 years, the media plays it straight. What’s happened to all the Euro bashing? The usual fear and loathing of all things European Commission? The ban on misshapen vegetables, the Euro-sausage, the forced decimalisation? It’s just one of the problems facing the “Leave” campaign in its bid to overcome anxieties over change to the status quo. In the Scottish Referendum, despite all their energy and optimism, the Scottish Nationalists were well-beaten by “Project Fear”, playing on voters’ concerns about the unknown and unknowable.
One in six people have still not made up their minds – but shifting opinion takes serious money. The formal Leave and “Remain” campaigns each have up to £7 million to spend, access to TV broadcasts, and one free mail to each household in Britain. But on top of that the parties can also individually spend to support to campaign with caps of £7 million for the Conservatives, £7 million for Labour, £3 million for the Lib Dems and £4 million for UKIP and £700,000 each for the SNP and the Greens. That pits up to £11 million for Leave against up to £18.4 million for Remain (since the Conservative Party is officially neutral). Wealthy individuals might also campaign independently but face a spending limit of £700,000. This might sound like a lot of money but is comparatively small beer when one considers the momentous nature of the decision being made and the cost of the US presidential election campaigns, which is likely to top $5 billion this year.
There are still ways Leave can rally enough support but they need to get creative. At this stage, each side is wheeling out the celebrity endorsers. Notable examples include the former heads of Britain’s intelligence agencies, Sir Jonathan Evans and Sir John Sawers, comedian Eddie Izzard and businessman, Sir Richard Branson, for staying in (especially around a maintaining the UK’s security argument), versus businessman Sir James Dyson, cricketer Sir Ian Botham and another former chief spook, Sir Richard Dearlove (around hope for more free trade outside the EU). The Remain campaign has probably run the most effective campaign, so far at least, managing to use the Prime Minister’s influence to persuade US President Barack Obama to speak up in support of remaining in the European Union during his recent trip to the UK, mainly by considering the negatives of coming out. Besides Boris Johnson – an important and charismatic actor as a no-nonsense figurehead for Leave – their campaign has displayed limited star power. Especially, since they seem to be attracting some choice overseas supporters of Brexit including French National Front chairwoman Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.
Targeted advertising online is likely to feature strongly in both campaigns in the near future – and Leave should be targeting ‘grey voters’ who are more likely to, support Brexit, and actually vote (probably based on a negative emotional appeal). From polling data, we know that a good performance in a TV debate in a prime-time slot is one of the most effective ways to sway voting. But this kind of debate has yet to be confirmed, if it happens at all. Part of the reason is because voters end up being influenced by flimsy evidence: who looks like a real leader, who’s sweating the least. That’s why in 2015 the Conservative Party did its best to water down the TV debate format by including as many contending voices as possible. A TV debate would be the best opportunity for Leave to create the momentum it needs, and it would be wise to start petitioning for a TV showdown as soon as possible. They shouldn’t bother copying Remain’s controversial household leafleting campaign. It did the job of looking like impartial Government advice, but who read it? It’s the kind of direct mail material that’s going to be ‘read’ in the ten seconds between walking from the front door to the bin.
Social media is an ideal campaign medium for the referendum, given its costs tend to be just labour. For Leave it’s less important because they need to bring out the Eurosceptics who tend to be in older age groups. We’ll also see many independent campaigners, not officially in either camp, but able to use their own sources of money to air more extreme views. Besides ensuring they don’t breach the spending limits, the various parties and campaigns first have to raise the cash. And generating cash from donors is doubly important. Not only do you gain their cash to support the campaign but you gain their support. So, we can expect a flurry of requests for funding over the next few weeks as the parties feverishly try to raise the funds for their communication campaigns.
The Euro-bashing might be (just) behind us, but still, voters need more than just negative messages that stir up anxieties (and these are needed). What’s going to excite voters about staying in Europe? Or why should we positively desire to leave the EU? We’ve had the fear narrative from both sides but where’s the hope? Only hope trumps fear, and that also requires a positive story that neither campaign has yet offered.
Paul Baines is Professor of Political Marketing at Cranfield University School of Management