In these times of referendum madness, it’s worth returning to the 2012 film, No, starring Gael Garcia-Bernal. The film explores the end of Pinochet’s regime, when the Chilean dictator called a referendum to decide the country’s future. Yes, and Pinochet stays. No, and Pinochet goes.
In the film, those running the No campaign wanted to persuade the electorate to get rid of Pinochet by showing the worst atrocities of the campaign. By showing just how bad things had become, they hoped to sway the population to say NO.
Enter Gael Garcia-Bernal’s character – a hotshot advertising executive with a new idea. He doesn’t want to tell people how awful things are right now. Instead, he wants to show the electorate the possibility of freedom, liberation – to give them a positive campaign that celebrates how much better life could be without Pinochet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this film throughout the EU referendum process, and the ways in which both Remain and Leave have run their campaigns.
Of course, there are no rules for how to do advertising right. In our job, we focus on the best way to tell stories and provoke the response we want. However, more often than not, we recognise that rather than focus on the negative, or the bad stuff the ‘other guys’ are doing, it can be more successful to sell the positive benefits of a product, a charity, or even a policy.
Take charity marketing, for example. Although we are often telling tough, upsetting stories, we try and tell them by showing the positive change the charity can bring to people’s lives. We aim to inspire rather than create feelings of despair. We show that change is possible, and demonstrate how a supporter’s donation can empower people to make a tangible difference.
So what happens with political campaigning? Why on both sides of the EU debate is the news so bad?
Whether it’s Remain gloomily forecasting World War Three or Leave spreading fear about the EU taking away our sovereignty, the EU campaign has relentlessly focused on the negative. It’s used dark, dreadful predictions that do very little to persuade people about why we should stay or go. There’s very little in either camp’s advertising campaign that seeks to inspire, engage and promote a positive message about the UK’s future.
There might not be any rules in advertising. But there are things we find work – and the Leave and Remain campaigns have ignored all of them.
Wouldn’t it be good to see a campaign that showed the positive impact of staying or going? For Remain to celebrate what’s great about the EU, or for Leave to show what could happen once we leave? Rather than attacks being exchanged, to see campaigns that gave people a positive reason to get involved and speak out and express their beliefs?
Wouldn’t it be good, in other words, if each campaign had approached this debate with some basic advertising principles in mind, instead of as politicians?