Humour – the double-edged campaigning sword

Search Engine Watch is running a series of posts during the general election from myself, Mark Hanson (Labour) and Rishi Saha (Conservatives). Here’s my first post:

Humour – the double-edged campaigning sword

It’s the rare politician who does humor well. But when it comes to online political campaigning, humor is a key factor for two reasons.

First, the Internet makes it easy for someone else to produce a humorous pastiche of your own material and then spread it around. Second (and this applies particularly in the U.K., where forwarding rates for political material are typically lower than in the U.S.), people are much more willing to pass on funny messages than earnest political ones.

We’ve seen both these factors at work in the early stages of the general election campaign here in Britain.

A traditional part of our campaigns has been the “unveiling” of a new billboard poster, with the media coverage from the launch being what really matters as the number of poster sites bought up for the poster is often few. However, courtesy of social media, the Tory and Labour poster launches this year have spawned a host of humorous edited pastiches, which have often generated far more media coverage and more online views than the original, official poster.

One example was my own take on a Conservative Party poster, which then ended up being picked up, along with others, and printed in the Daily Mail, a national tabloid newspaper heavily read by key swing voters across “Middle England.”

I used a template put together by Clifford Singer, whose own account of how the Conservative Party poster launch was subverted by the online world is well worth a read. One of his conclusions was:

The second lesson we’ve learned is that while it’s true that Twitter users represent only a small part of our audience, that doesn’t make Twitter less important. Why? Because those Twitter users are a gateway to a wider audience.

In part because of this lesson, the Liberal Democrat approach to online campaigning has to be to use caricature and humor upfront — which then makes it harder for others, as caricaturing a caricature rapidly becomes a bit self-referential, narcissistic, and boring. Humor also means people are more likely to share content with others, especially with friends outside the political party activist bubble.

The Liberal Democrats, being the third party in U.K. politics, have been painting the Conservative and Labour parties as part of the same old traditional political consensus that agrees on far too much. Hence the “Labservatives” campaign, done deliberately tongue in cheek.

Central to the campaign has been a set of spoof posters and YouTube clips.

The main YouTube film was a mini-hit, generating at the time of writing, over 27,000 views. It morphs together images and voices impersonating the two main party leaders, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Those 27,000 views are not huge put against the approximately 10 million votes needed to win a general election, but they are large by YouTube standards. It also exceeds the number of views achieved for the wife of David Cameron, Samantha Cameron, with her much touted high profile role in the general election campaign, which marks a decisive break from previous British campaigning tradition:

In addition, the launch got widespread coverage elsewhere, repeating the often seen pattern of the coverage of online campaigning getting to a bigger audience that the online campaigning directly manages. That coverage was picked up by one of the UK’s most read political bloggers and a range of national media outlets, including many not usually that well disposed towards the Liberal Democrats.

That wider coverage, plus the positive response for party activists (remembering that happy activists make for more active activists), are the real measures of success for the campaign so far.


There are no comments

Share your views

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.