Donald Trump and the Leave.EU campaign pulled off huge shocks. But was it all 'anti-establishment' politics, or did they run great campaigns? 

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about how we’re entering a ‘post-truth’ era, indeed, it has been named as ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford dictionaries. What we’re talking about here is lying. And it seems that in the current era, the bigger, bolder, brassier and downright ballsier the lie, the better. And in the context in which people are using this expression – politics, it’s worked, none more effectively than the EU Referendum in the UK in the run up to June 23rd, or in the US Presidential elections in November and for 18 months before that.

 In the advertising industry here in the UK, we’ve always been very well protected from lies. Anything remotely on the borderline of Legal, Decent, Honest, or Truthful receives high scrutiny from the overseer of standards, the ASA, as well it should. And this means we haven’t (in recent times) been subjected to falsehoods in influencing our purchasing, or decision making habits. However, the same cannot be said for Political advertising.

Political Advertising through the years

Political advertising has been one of the fascinating specialisms within our industry ever since ‘Ike’ Eisenhower carried 442 electoral college votes in the 1952 election with his catchy ‘I like Ike’ jingle. Maurice and Charles Saatchi, already rising stars in Soho Adland in the late 70’s, sealed their place in the Advertising hall of fame with their ‘Labour isn’t working’ campaign, which saw Margaret Thatcher become the first female Prime Minister. More recently, Barack Obama’s positive ‘Yes we can!’ call to arms was the first election fought (and won) through harnessing social media to connect with the electorate, and by using micro-donations as a hugely effective fundraising tool.

"I Like Ike" political commercial and jingle 1952 Presidential Campaign Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson 

More recently, however, political campaigning has taken a far darker route, with facts seemingly becoming far less relevant or important in peoples decision making. Whether this is merely a reflection of our political times, or whether it truly is a shift in strategy for communications professionals, time will tell, but if it’s the latter, then surely we should be looking to our governing bodies to, well, govern against this sort of thing?

Enter the ‘post-truth’ era

Irrespective of your political persuasion, it’s clear that both sides of the EU referendum lied to us in the run up to June’s historic plebiscite. The Leave campaign drove up and down the country with the now infamous £350m ‘Let’s fund our NHS instead’ slogan emblazoned on the side of a coach, and David Cameron & George Osborne sanctioned £9m of taxpayers’ money in a door drop carpet bombing campaign, which delivered opinions as facts, which were widely discredited by economists.

 "No, of course I never promised £350m a week to the NHS"

"No, of course I never promised £350m a week to the NHS"

What does all this mean for advertising and communications? Well if you separate paid for advertising from the rest of the political communications ‘noise’ –  not a lot. The vast majority of the lies which have been propagated by Politicians on both sides have been done so either verbally in interviews, in live debates, or on social media – as personal forms of communication. These fall outside of the ASA's remit. However as communications strategists we can learn a great deal from both of the successful campaigns.

Both Trump and the ‘Brexiteers’ were huge underdogs in systems which were heavily stacked against them. In the UK, the government received cross-party support, gained the backing of the ECB, the WTO, the G7, NATO to name a few, and had the advantage of (at least) £9m more in advertising budget, and still lost. Donald Trump became the first President-elect to come from outside of Politics, in a campaign where he spent half as much as his opponent, and was endorsed by only 1/20th of the publications Hillary Clinton had. Putting aside the, not inconsiderable, influence that the current wave of ‘anti-establishment’ feeling prevalent in the current Western political spectrum had, each winning campaign was a masterstroke of identifying a target audience, creating a message which resonates with them, and executing with targeted delivery of the message.

Donald Trump executed an ill-advised (at the time), almost rogue approach to tweeting, but his relaxed, almost melodic, sentence construction, signed off with his now signature ‘Adjective!’ achieved real cut-through. He spent $3.2m on ‘MAGA’ hats, which were visible as far as the eye can see at his rallies, which he described as ‘A Movement’. He used narrative which resonated, however insidiously, with the ‘Rust Belt’, and he targeted his appearances and rhetoric to key marginal states which he needed to carry in order to win the White House. Carry them he did, in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

 Not just a terrible red hat apparently. 

Not just a terrible red hat apparently. 

Leave.Eu focused on the core messages – on Sovereignty and that we should ‘Take Back Control’, that the EU was taking £350m of our money, and that we couldn’t provide effective public services without limiting ‘open-door’ immigration. The Remain campaign’s shortcomings have been highlighted far more eloquently than I by Richard Warmsley, and despite hindsight being a wonderful thing, it’s clear that the messaging didn’t have the brutal simplicity of thought that the Leave campaign did.

So what should we learn?  

I’m not sure that Marketers can learn a huge amount from the two case studies I’ve been looking at. They should definitely continue to ensure that their research is strong, that their messaging resonates with their target audience, and that they execute effectively. Amongst all the bluster and fallout of each vote, the effectiveness of each campaign has fallen by the wayside. Trump didn’t win because he lied that he would ‘Build that wall’ (he still might), and didn’t win because they promised the NHS £350m in additional funding per week. They won because they had a game-plan, they understood their audience, and they executed with precision.