Kate Robertson: In a digital era, politicians must start a dialogue, not waste time on negative ads that come back to bite them

Kate Robertson
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The Tories' "attack ad" was immediately subverted by their rivals (Source: Conservatives)
Negative "attack advertising" has a great pedigree in British politics. Think of the snaking dole queue of 1979, proclaiming "Labour isn’t working", or the image in 2001 of William Hague adorned with the hair of Margaret Thatcher. "Be afraid, be very afraid", the caption read - aggressive, but with wonderfully British "edge" you never see in the US versions negative ads.
Increasingly though, political campaigners have found, in the digital age, that their posters attack back.
For example, the Conservatives' latest offering - a looming Alex Salmond with a tiny, baby-faced Ed Miliband tucked neatly into his top-pocket - has swiftly pushed back at its creators. No sooner was it published than the Photoshoppers of Labour HQ had placed a diminutive David Cameron in the pocket of Nigel Farage, while Farage’s own party released a version, with the Prime Minister stuffed in the jacket of a towering Jean-Claude Juncker. Though I do think the original struck home...
Spoofing political posters isn't new. But while opponents used to make their point with a can of spray paint, the digital age has handed them a much more sophisticated set of tools. The simple fact is, too much political advertising just doesn’t "get" the internet, which speaks, unfortunately for the protagonists, volumes about a lack of connection with the digital age and its denizens.
To be fair to our politicians, both the main parties have grasped the importance of the digital reality. Speaking to the BBC earlier this year, Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s government and politics specialist for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, noted the social media spend of both parties has already exceeded the entire 2010 budget.
The problem is that, while politicians seem to understand the need to pour money into digital, they’re still a long way from using that money effectively.
Although the Tories' Salmond poster struck home, it does demonstrate the fundamental problem with the current approach (from both parties) - it’s a piece of content pushed out through a digital channel that's undermined by interaction rather than enriched by it.
The internet is not a TV channel or a blank wall waiting for a poster to be mounted on it. It’s a conversation.
The problem with every poster we’ve seen so far this campaign is that they talk at their audiences rather than with them.
It’s an area in which politics can learn a lot from the private sector. Last week, advertising's top brass descended on London for the annual Advertising Week Europe conference. Finding innovative ways for companies to converse with their customers was at the heart of the agenda. There were more than a few Westminster-villagers who should have considered buying tickets.
The reason Obama’s now much-mythologised use of social media was so successful is that he learned the lessons of business. The Obama campaign didn’t just use digital as another channel through which to distribute campaign ads, it used it to talk to people and to listen to them.
A case in point was the now-President’s Q&A on the Ask Me Anything board of Reddit (a hugely popular forum whose low-fi appearance and militant community had, until then, put off mainstream politicians).
Cameron may have had an interview with BuzzFeed, but he’s still miles away from using the internet to have that kind of genuine two-way conversation with younger voters. And that's something he could and should fix immediately, because he's actually really good in conversation - certainly better than his main opponent.
Genuinely conversing with people is exactly what the current climate calls for. Much of the disillusionment with modern politicians, particularly from young people, is that they come across as messaging automatons.
And young people fail to understand that their vote has any value or power at all. Politicians have never been good at answering the question, but the current state of affairs is worse than it has ever been. So soundbite- and buzzword-focused has political speech become that it’s increasingly impossible to think of our leaders as being engaged in real dialogue.
For a generation the internet has allowed to be in almost constant conversation, this is a particularly alienating phenomenon, and one clearly feeding populist and insurgent parties more than anyone else.
It’s far too easy for Britain’s mainstream political parties to blame something like the recession for disillusionment with the political process; unless they adopt a digital strategy that genuinely aims to start a dialogue, they risk sliding further into irrelevance.
Picasso once said computers were useless because “they can only give you answers”. For British politics, answers might at least be a start.

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