Come on Yes to AV, burn that fat cat

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 18 April 2011 in Diary
Since the beginning of the year, 'Yes to Fairer Votes' has run a classic establishment campaign. For the last three weeks, they need to come out really fighting, with a message people can understand, otherwise failure beckons

The Yes to AV campaign had a big push over the last fortnight.  Did you notice?

I suspect that the answer may well be yes if you are an avid reader of Total Politics.  But as head of a major PR company and so seeing data of media coverage much more broadly, I can tell you that the answer for most people is that they didn’t even see it. 

And if the ‘Yes’ message did penetrate anyone’s consciousness on the last two sunny weekends or as they plan their Easter holidays, they were probably still deeply underwhelmed.

Why?  I worked with a leading copywriter and ad creative here at Engine to look at the Yes campaign’s approach. 

And the three of us were in complete agreement that the Yes camp has lost the plot in its approach over the last few months.  There has been a desperate turnaround towards the very end, but we wonder whether it is too late...

So what has ‘Yes’ done?  It’s hard to believe, but since the beginning of the year ‘Yes’ has run a classic establishment campaign.

Lots of prominent places for Westminster insiders; a nice smattering of the usual (boring) B-grade celebs who bang on about politics between filming reality shows, and ads in comfortable shades of pastels that look like every second Department of Health campaign or those posters the council puts on bus shelters up to tell you which day to put out your recycling. 

In fact, it seems that ‘Yes’ took its campaign template from that other rip-roaringly successful effort, Britain in Europe.  You remember that don’t you?  A massively over-funded campaign that saw the chances of Britain ever adopting the Euro diminish for every word it said. 

In fact, for the first three months of the year it looked like ‘Yes’ had copied the Britain in Europe template almost letter for letter.

What a terrible missed opportunity. 

‘Yes’ was second by second blowing the chance to take up the mantle of great anti-establishment campaigns (before anyone asks, I am not doing an Ed Miliband here.  I mean ‘Yes’ should have single mindedly been a continuation of the recent anti-MP expenses energy, rather than standing on the shoulders of Gandhi...) and run “against” Westminster.

What should they have done?  Instead of the dull old ads about “fairness” and MPs “working harder”, think instead how effective ‘Yes’ would have been if it had stuck with the campaign briefly tried by pro-AV Lib Dems.  Emblazoned under the Banner “No More Safe Seats” was a fat cat, burning under attack from voters’ new AV power:

I personally may have changed the image of the cat (after all, who likes to see a cat on fire?  The nation almost lynched that woman who put one in a bin...) to one of an MP sitting on an enormous pile of cash.  But the point is the same. 

If ‘Yes’ had run with this approach -  week after week, after week, after week; coming to a close for the final weeks of the campaign with a crescendo “One chance to change Westminster forever”, we would  be looking at a ‘Yes’ landslide heading our way.  

Last week saw the two campaigns produce their TV ads (albeit for use as Party Politicals, so unlikely to be watched with the interest and frequency of most ads).  In it we see a flash of the campaign that Yes should have been running for months.  Purely anti-Westminster, actually quite catchy.  Maybe my view of it was helped by the fact that the No campaign’s Party Political is one of the most patronising, almost-parody in its message, pieces of marketing that I have ever seen.  My colleague ad creative refused to believe it was real (He thought it was an elaborate spoof; put together by our public affairs team for our next office party.  For the sake of good political marketing, if only that were true...)   

Despite that flash of focus from yes, what do the next few weeks hold out for the campaign and their prospects? 

And before you wonder, I write this as someone  who is going to vote yes and actually thinks AV is the system best suited to delivering a representative, but still strong, Parliamentary democracy.

But sadly for us Yes-ers, can’t you already smell that stench of failure wafting towards you? 

Can’t you already picture the Z-list ex-Eastenders stars (plus someone who once appeared in Taggart, we think) standing on a rainy stage, grimacing through Ed Milliband’s next rallying cry? 

Can’t you already hear the pundits in the early hours of 6 May explaining why ‘Yes’ lost?

It’s not too late, although it almost is...Come on ‘Yes’, bin the campaign plan that created such a terrible January, February and March and, with three weeks to go, come out truly fighting. 

Maybe it is time to set that fat cat on fire...

Sacha Deshmukh is a Board Director of Engine, the UK’s largest independent communications company and CEO of its PR and Public Affairs business, MHP Communications

Tags: AV referendum, Yes to AV

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