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The Influencers
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Did Advertising Fail the EU?

Iris WorldWide, 2 months, 2 weeks ago

INFLUENCER: Iris Worldwide’s Global PR Director Julia Nightingale on how the ad industry just didn’t do enough to stop Brexit

Did Advertising Fail the EU?

I’m currently watching the soap opera shit show that is the UK political system currently fall apart, sitting at my desk, muttering expletives while my colleagues mainly stare on and look concerned.  

I’ve been doing that to varying degrees of intensity since I woke up on the 24th of June and my boyfriend told me we’d left the EU.  

“No we haven’t,” I scoffed.  

Once he had convinced me he wasn’t joking, with genuine internet proof of blond toffs and UKIP bigots celebrating ‘their victory’, the shock settled in. 


There was a sense of shock from everyone I spoke to. Who would vote Leave?! In the past I’ve sat around with colleagues and friends, occasionally chatting about politics before that got utterly boring/depressing. Usually fuelled by a few beers and usually feeling quite clever if we can remember names of more than two opposing politicians. We all used the oh-so-patronising I’VE VOTED button on our Facebook pages. Everyone was a Remainer. 

This time just over a week ago I went to sleep feeling pretty confident that common sense would prevail.  

We all woke up with the same expression on our faces.  

And I’m starting to think that advertising is to blame.

The official advertising campaign for Leave led with fear and anger. But it was emotional and evidently, it worked. The Remain camp was flat and emotionless.  And as much as I agree with most of what Jeremy Corbyn (for non-UK readers, the leader of the Labour party) stands for on paper, he didn’t quite have the ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’ delivery and passion that was so desperately needed. 

There was no real concept of who they were trying to speak to – and no real effort to get people to ‘mobilise’ their vote, and sway voters / leaners / young people that weren’t voting, to be more involved in the debate and understand just how influential their voice could be. 

We let crap advertising speak for everyone. 

Remainers were preaching to the same choir, passionately telling lots of other Remainers why we should all vote Remain. And worse than that, some people within that choir were mouthing along rather than actually singing.  (Yes, that’s a rubbish metaphor for people talking a lot of talk about politics and not walking a lot of walk to the polling station.)  

The advertising industry is made up of some of the brightest (and loudest) young people in the country. We’re experts in communication, and have the skills to talk to anyone in a way that they can relate too. We know the importance of a strong voice and how it can change behaviour. Getting mums to buy nappies that are no different to the competitor other than 10x the price? DONE. Get geriatrics to sign up to over priced life insurance? NAILED IT – we’ll deliver it in a mini coffin via drone, viewable via 3D bifocal glasses. That’ll at least get a gold at Cannes – and we’ll only need to make one to make it eligible for entry. 

But for all the frothing at the fingertips on social media…. How many young people actually voted? Less than half. Of that half, how many mobilised their vote to people outside their networks? And of those specifically working in advertising, what percentage managed to get their postal vote in before the lucky ones headed to Cannes – to enjoy a place they will need a visa to visit in a few years? 

What percentage understood what it meant to not vote? How many agency bosses emphasised the importance of voting to their young staff – getting it done before, during, or after office hours, whatever it takes? 

Millennials (a ridiculous term for ‘young person’) had the lowest showing in the EU referendum. Did it seem too easy to go along with all the passion on social media, to feel like the majority was with ‘Remain’, and that one little vote wouldn’t really matter? Maybe not in a general election with a first past the post system that no one understands… but in this case, every single vote counted.  

And 81 per cent of 55-64 year olds and 83 per cent of 65+ year olds braved the rain and made it to the polling station, with a good majority of those voting to Leave.  

Who was talking to those people about what the other option was, instead of just scaring them into a vote that they didn’t understand?  

In 2008 Sarah Silverman spearheaded a campaign in the U.S (specifically Florida, one of the big swing states) called The Great Schlep. The Great Schlep was simple – it asked young Obama-supporting Jews to make a trip to see their Grandparents (traditionally non-Obama-supporting Jews) in Florida – and convince them to get behind the democratic candidate – to take the opportunity to make a difference.  And it did – it helped turn a key swing state blue.  

The mission was to educate – not in a shouty social media way. But face to face, person to person, amongst families and across generations to educate about a different world, or possible outcome.  

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve said their parents voted Leave… or how lots of people ‘back home’ were voting Leave compared to friends in London. 

How many young people, working in the communications (key word) industry in Britain talked to their parents or grandparents, uncles and aunties and friends back home, outside of their Shoreditch or Soho network, about the reasons behind their vote? Aside from the dire official campaigns… how is it that people in advertising, or the advertising community, one of the most visible industries in the world… didn’t really do anything?    

People were voting Leave but not knowing why. (Of course if you voted Leave because you think it’s the right thing to do and agree with Farage… *vomit*… then fair enough. You used your voice and your vote and good luck to you.) And people weren’t bothering to vote Remain because they didn’t think their vote mattered. 

Young people still don’t get how important they are – and that they could have the loudest and most impactful voice when it comes to making decisions about our country’s future. 

Young people are being let down by those in charge but, even worse, we’re letting ourselves down. We’re all shouting but we’re not all acting. People who are even younger still are being totally let down with no say whatsoever as they are still considered by our Government / general frumpwits to be ‘incapable of making an informed decision’ about the vote. 16-18 year olds, when given the chance to turn up and have a say as they were in the Scottish referendum, have never been more informed, engaged and interested. Should we not be campaigning for a voice for them, about the future that they will live the longest in? 

We’re all sick of seeing copied and pasted statuses. And there’s been enough sharing links amongst people that generally all agree with the same thing, spreading mass hysteria and not much else.  

As #PostRefRacism grows, it’s more important than ever that we take action, read and engage in political commentary and discourse as much as possible (maybe just not Murdoch owned papers), stick together and try and find the positives and alternatives. And then, we spread the word that there ARE positive ways to embrace Europe and feel proud to be British; internationalism is also important to our values as British people. 

Young people are the only ones that can make this positive change happen. The idiots in Westminster definitely can’t.  

And the other people that can make this happen are the members of the advertising community. We have the skills and influence to create genuine positive discussion, debate and, ultimately, change. The Tory in-fighting, back-stabbing, resignations and juvenile displays are all pretty brilliant fodder for a guerrilla campaign, no?  

In 2010 iris created a campaign for the Lib Dems called Labservative. Iris accused Labour and Conservative of offering the same failed politics and were passionate at the time about the Lib Dems offering a genuine alternative. It was rough and ready BUT it was a different approach and it made people think differently… And you just need to look at Obama’s presidential campaign to know that political advertising doesn’t need to be all fear-mongering and dumbed down statistics. It can be entertaining and engaging. It can play a more meaningful role in our culture.  

If advertising hasn’t failed the EU… it’s definitely not doing anything to save it… yet. We work in our own bubble – and especially so on this issue. Can we put our collective talents to better use? If this industry is supposed to be renowned for creativity and bravery and changing opinions of those hardest to reach… apathy amongst the young people who have the power to change things should be inexcusable. 

We will have to live with this decision the longest. If we are dissatisfied about political decisions being made on our behalf then we all need to be more politically engaged. Since the result there has been a surge of emotional uproar amongst young people. Some of those young people didn’t see the point of voting or politics but are now feeling more involved and interested in what’s going to happen… so let’s use that.    

Agencies have a lot of power and influence and so far… we haven’t really put any of that to positive use. There is an opportunity here to do something, to engage those people who feel betrayed by the result and unheard. If advertising really does have the power to do good… why aren’t we using it for any good?


Julia Nightingale is Global PR Director at iris Worldwide