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General Election 2019: What are the parties telling us via their targeted adverts?
The parties use targeted advertisements to gather data, inform and activate voters. This election is likely to be one of the most electorally volatile in British history and as such targeted advertising has a powerful capacity to influence the outcome. The words the parties use in their adverts therefore matters, as they can sell one policy to one person and another idea to a different person. Despite this potential for micro-targeting what the parties are talking about overall gives us an important idea of what the next two weeks will be fought upon, how the parties treat us as voters and what they think we need to know during the 2019 General Election.
Through the creation of word clouds of all the adverts sent from the 1st November to the 24th November (excluding duplicates n~426), we can see what the parties are talking about, and appreciate the honey they are dripping into our ears.
The Labour Party is focused on diverse messaging, they use more different topics and policy areas and this is reflected in the language they have been using. As well as core areas such as ‘Brexit’, ‘fracking’, ‘prescriptions’ and the ‘NHS’, it is also clear that a strategy is to bring in opposition leaders. ‘Boris’ is mentioned often, as is ‘Trump’, the ‘Liberal Democrats’ and the term ‘Tory’. Labour is unafraid to engage in negative personalised campaigning via framing issues around themselves protecting services, whilst highlighting how others threaten them.
Labour avoid using place names, instead focusing on simple policy orientated content for broadcast that uses inclusive language that represents group identity. Terms like ‘our’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ are used heavily in conjunction with emotive terms like ‘will’, ‘protect’ and ‘change’. Finally, the use of ‘register’ and ‘petition’ shows how the party is using adverts to organise supporters and gather data as well as pushing people to vote.
At the centre of the Conservatives communications is ‘Parliament’. The idea that Parliament is being blocked is a key feature of their push online, with the idea often related to terms like ‘delay’, ‘confusion’, ‘indecision’ and ‘gridlock’. The party, like Labour, is also likely to engage in negative attack advertising. The rates are higher than those of the Labour Party, with ‘Corbyn’ featuring consistently, especially in relation to the ‘blocked’ and potentially ‘hung’ ‘Parliament’.
The other party leaders, Swinson and Sturgeon do not feature in text but do so in image, only Corbyn’s name is repeatedly used, including via the ‘#costofcorbyn’ hashtag. One key word does stand out above all the others; ‘Brexit’. The word features very heavily and is often linked to other emotive words like ‘chaos’ or ‘disaster’. Finally there is a heavy use of location place names like; ‘Newport’, ‘Cambridgeshire’ and ‘Workington’ showing the towns the Conservatives have been targeting.
The Liberal Democrats like the Conservative party focus on ‘Brexit’ and the use of opposition leaders. The party are incredibly self referential, which means they constantly refer to themselves in their own adverts, the other parties do so much less. Language and topic’s used are varied as shown by the lack of large words, however it is clear that the party is interested in ‘stopping Brexit’, ‘nursing’, the ‘economy’ and the ‘NHS’. The party also uses evocative emotive positive imagery, asking people often ‘to vote’ using the framing of ‘brighter future’ with inclusive terms like ‘our’ and ‘your’.
The party also references it’s leader a lot, ‘Jo Swinson’ occurs often, with the Liberal Democrats use of the leader greater than all the other parties. This high level of personalisation is interesting, but is a tactic that may backfire given Jo Swinson’s declining personal polling ratings.
The Brexit Party, as the name would imply, use the word ‘Brexit’ heavily. The party uses very simple language and repeats key mantras continuously, as such there is a low diversity of language used. Negative attack advertising is used often, with ‘Corbyn’ the key individual used. Farage himself does not feature in text often, this is interesting as the party is often claimed to be the Nigel Farage party.
Like the Conservative’s a lot of place names are used, from ‘Bassetlaw’ to ‘Croydon’ or ‘Bolton’ to ‘Sedgefield’ the clear seat targets are apparent. Clear lines of attack are also visible, with the party organising against a ‘second referendum’, and against others trying to ‘stop Brexit’. Finally the use of ‘click’, ‘tip’ and ‘support’ show how the party are using Facebook to gain money and data from those that engage with the adverts.
The Green Party also use a wide variety of language, with two core themes; ‘voting’ and ‘saving the planet’. These core messages are seen consistently, with is clear that other emotive and environmentally related words are also used secondarily to enhance their key theme. ‘Sustainable’, ‘regeneration’, ‘pollution’, ‘planet’, ‘traffic’ and ‘technology’ are all seen repeatedly showing the party is centrally focused on fusing important areas of policy with the environment.
The party is clearly issue and policy focused and does not engage in either positive or negative personalised campaigning. ‘Brexit’ also appears, however it is clear the party is concerned with an whole array of environmental issues leading their adverts to address a huge scope of topics.
Overall it is clear that the core terms that are defining this elections targeted adverts so far are; ‘vote’ and ‘Brexit’. Parties are using targeted advertising to centrally try and activate the public to vote. However, the key issue seen is Brexit. It is clearly important to the parties and is regularly seen, however the data shows that the reality is this election is seeing a huge variety of issues being campaigned upon. As such although important, the targeted advertising tells a different story from the idea that this 2019 General Election is the ‘Brexit Election’.
Other issues from the environment to the NHS are readily apparent. However alongside these two core terms, a central theme of the election is also clear, negative personalised attack advertising. Almost all the parties are engaging in the form, with the use of opposition parties and leaders used to negatively charge the policies, issues and ideas that this election is being fought over. We the voters are being segmented and fed different ideas, with the negative use of policy and politicians feeding into our already fractured and polarised political landscape. The ability for parties to hyper-charge negative campaigning is a new phenomenon and one which we must be able to hold to account.
Tristan Hotham is a PhD student at the University of Bath and a member of the Political Studies Association. He studies the use of Facebook as a campaign tool in the UK. He is currently working as a consultant for Who Targets Me, a campaign group pushing for greater transparency in targeted communications. His latest work includes a piece on A/B testing for the Observer, reportage on Boriswave for the New Statesmen and a piece on the varied use of Boris Johnson for the Evening Standard. Image credit: CC by Jeremy Corbyn/Flickr.