Sunday, 25 April 2010

Negative Political Branding or ‘What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself’

Negative political branding has been, without a doubt at the centre of this electoral campaign, providing the salt and pepper for a situation that is anyway quite hard to digest. Here are just a few examples: Gordon Brown, in the first Prime Ministerial debate, thanked the Conservatives for illustrating him with a smile on his face on their posters, while during the second one a whole row regarding the way in which Labour leaflets were portraying Tory policies sparked everyone's interests. Moreover, YouTube has been flooded with videos illustrating the horrors of each party, the Conservative '1 Minute of Labour' being just one of the many. But as reciprocal bashing from the two big parties became a usual occurrence, it's more interesting how the minor parties are using this technique in portraying themselves as an alternative to what is perceived to be the 'establishment'. Nick Clegg, in his extremely successful first debate, was constantly lumping his two opponents together and distancing himself from then as an avatar of 'change'. Sod the lot! said UKIP, while Plaid Cymru launched a poster saying Blah blah blah ... Same Old Parties, Same old politics accompanied by the same theme as UKIP: three rather unflattering pictures of Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

Thus, by grouping the big three, which isn't that hard given that it comes from the perspective of a series of parties that are relative outsiders, two things are achieved. Firstly, the 'Big Three' are represented as one entity, by generalising all the sins of one party to the entire group. The purpose of this procedure is, for example, to convince people who may not think there's something wrong with Nick Clegg, to associate him with the sins of the other two leaders, just because they were together o a poster, and thus ensure that he doesn't become an alternative option in the eyes of the voter. Secondly, the three main parties then become the 'other', in a black-white construction, thus strengthening the difference in between them and the party promoting this message. In this way, it is much easier to represent themselves as different from these and as an epitome of change. Long post-structuralist story short: it's a good technique to represent the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems as a bad, evil, wrong, etc. unitary group while representing themselves as the good the electorate needs.

So, is it working then? Yes and no ... and, if anything, we must also think of the impact these posters have, the number of people who trust what these minor parties say, which given that few vote for them, should be rather small. Yet, they may be able to sway undecided voters that had been disenchanted with the current system or people who for this reason, were thinking of not voting at all. But there are many more criteria to take into consideration, for which I have neither the time nor space here.

Yet, there is much more to negative political branding than representing the other parties and here's an example of this, my personal favourite poster in this campaign so far. But let's start with this first:

The rather uninspired cover of the Labour Party Manifesto, that genuinely managed to give me chills the first time I saw it. Why do I say uninspired? Simple. Firstly: Raising sun?!? – socialist symbol taken a bit to the extreme. What's next, a slogan containing the word 'progress'? Then: Colour scheme and style – not bad, only one minor issue: it would look a lot better as a propaganda poster in communist Eastern Europe of the 1970s than as an image representing New Labour in 2010. And I do realise that most Eastern European immigrants, who can relate to this symbolistic won't be voting in these elections, but really, dear Gordon, is THIS the message you want to put across or is your PR team mocking you and the whole party?

Moreover, can you spot any similarities with this, the Coat of arms of the Socialist Republic of Romania? Well, I can and I must say that the similarities with a symbol of the communist regime isn't all that flattering for Labour.

Getting back to negative branding, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties capitalised on all this in using the basic image in a poster criticising the big party's policy on renewing the UK's independent nuclear deterrent (I reckon they're pooling money to pay for a really good PR team, because their campaigns look and sound very similar, and very good at that). Moreover, at the launch, Adam Price, MP for Plaid, commented:

'The Cold War is long past and the world has changed but the mindset of the London parties is stuck on weapons of mass destruction.'

The big three are Labour, Tory and Liberals, not even using their full party names, while on the rather communist background of Labours manifesto, a nuclear mushroom has been added, vaguely resembling the message sent in a famous Lyndon Johnson campaign ad. In this way, the representation of the three as the 'other' goes further, both through the poster and in speeches, in likening their policies with those belonging to the Cold Was and, even worse, to the communist regime with a slogan that just seems taken out of '1984': A Future Feared by All. Moreover, the SNP slogan (More Nats, Less Cuts) was adapted to More Nats, No Nukes, thus representing the two sides as big bad nuclear and dangerous (and, ahem, communist) Labour+Tory+Liberals versus the good and peaceful nationalists.

Negative political branding is extremely strong, especially through imagery and even more when it employs symbols that are both powerful and full of hidden meanings. Yet, this poster won't really make a radical difference, because as mentioned before neither Plaid nor the SNP poses the power to promote it and convince people of its truth or, in other words, neither can, at this point in time, make this a credible contending discourse on the British political scene. Nevertheless, if it weren't for things like this, elections wouldn't be half the fun they are...


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