The dust has settled, wounds are being licked but bruises continue to shine.
It’s over a month since the UK general election and ever since results night I’ve been wanting to write this article.
I work across advertising and UX. Two industries that focus on behaviour change. Now there are clearly political reasons why labour may have lost. However, there are some simple advertising, UX and psychological reasons too. So first let’s have a look at how the Conservative Party used behavioural economics to their advantage… whether they knew it or not.
Now, for what I’m about to say, many of you may utter under your breath “thank you captain obvious” however, I’m keen to go deeper and get to why.
If you ask the average voter on a UK street the Tory’s stood for at this election many would simply say — “Get Brexit Done”. If you ask the average voter about Labour it’s probably a bit less clear.
Boris’s party had one main message. A message that they would “Get Brexit Done” — Not solved — Not ratified — Not agreed or discussed. But done.
Labour had a far more rational and nuanced approach. They planned to hold another referendum. Their options would be Yes to a given Brexit deal, or no to Brexit overall. They didn’t choose sides. They understood that half of the population voted leave and the other half voted remain. They didn’t want to alienate one group. Given the stalemate over the last three years, this was a sensible option.
So did the public just prefer the option given by the Tories?
As written above their policy was hopefully an unconfusing one. However, in the news, it came across far less so. Some reports said their policy was to hold two referendums, others suggested holding one with three options. What was clear was that their message wasn’t clear.
So did this win the election?
Behavioural economics rarely talks about massive impacts. Changes and nudges usually only affect a small proportion. But in any game of tight margins, a small number may be all that’s needed to make a difference. If that’s the case, here’s how people could have been influenced subconsciously.
We have a natural bias against uncertainty. You’ve probably heard the phrase “It’s the not knowing that kills you”. And it’s somewhat true. Think about how uncertainty makes you feel. Uber became popular as it removes the uncertainty.
You know very quickly that your taxi is on its way, and hasn’t been hijacked by the party-goers 5 doors down.
Similarly, If you think about when your plane has been delayed. You’d rather know it’s going to be a bad delay of 6 hours, than being in limbo for 3 hours and never knowing. Even in Hollywood, actors talk about a fast no being better than a slow maybe. You’d rather know you didn’t get the part, than be kept waiting.
Therefore the Conservatives message of “get Brexit done” eased that uncertainty.
This meant regardless of how you voted previously, the Brexit certainty may have given you some ease. In the fog of a 3 year Brexit stalemate, this gave some clarity and hope… subconsciously.
This isn’t about a rational weighing up of options. This is our subconscious instinctive brain influencing us. Our system 1 brain.
Our system 1 brain deals with all the basic functions that keep us alive. It has a heap of shortcuts, known as biases, that act as preset reactions. It’s the brain’s way to handle the thousands of decisions and judgement calls it has to make every day. From an evolutionary perspective, having a definite unpopular plan is better than no plan. We have a bias for action over inaction, as those who hang around waiting, tend to starve or get eaten. So, in short, we tend to gravitate to definitive action, regardless of how good it is.
But there’s another psychological effect in play here too.
System 1 vs System 2 thinking
In an earlier article, I wrote about why sensible ads don’t work. For those not wanting to bump up my Medium stats, here’s the gist. As I’ve briefly touched upon, the brain works at two speeds, fast and slow.
The fast brain, System 1 as mentioned above, deals with instinctive decision making. This might be driving to work, or catching a ball.
You’re not really aware of thinking about it and you can do other things at the same time.
System 2 is the slow brain and is the one that requires smarts. You have to stop. It might mean you can’t talk to a friend and navigate to a new place at the same time. And it’s definitely why I need to turn the podcast off while I do my taxes. You need to use your logical, rational, calculating brain.
This is fine for things you actively must stop and think about, but for many politics is just what happens in the background. So when Labour’s policy on Brexit is discussed it requires thought and thinking. It’s complex enough that we don’t instinctively get it. Whereas the Conservative message of “Get Brexit Done” doesn’t need any thinking to understand it. It uses language we can instantly process.
Brexit stirred emotions in people on either side, and “get Brexit done” plays on emotion. It’s strong and decisive and emotions are a System 1 trait. We don’t think if something is funny or whether we should fall in love. We just do.
Labour’s policy on Brexit was a sensible rational one, but it required some brainpower to think it through. To get our head around it. Which means it’s less likely to hit home. We’re as the tories message of “get Brexit done” struck a chord at an emotional level. Therefore we were subconsciously more likely to connect or at least understand it.
Does connection and understanding sway votes?
As I said, it’s a game of small margins. It only takes a few to make a difference.
Simplicity versus clutter
In advertising, we teach that one message at a time is more effective than several. However, It’s common for clients to try to get as many messages across in every ad.
They’re paying for the media, and they want to get as much bang for their buck.
But people are not machines.
We have a small capacity to register a message at the best of times. Psychologists have said we peak at around 7 items when we are verbally given a list to remember. And that’s when we’re trying.
There are many reasons for this. When there’s an overwhelming amount of information it’s unclear what’s most important and what to prioritise. It’s also hard for every message to register, especially if they are written in system 2 language (rational) rather than system 1 (instinctive and emotional). In the world of politics, people may assume we review every policy statement thoroughly.
But that’s not how real people operate.
Politics is just another category of advertising. The fewer messages you put out there the more chances you have of one of them being registered.
Just look at these two posters.
Both are essentially talking about the shoe being light. But which do you get and connect with, without having to overthink it? Again the system 1 & system 2 parts of our brain process these in a different way. There’s a good chance we don’t even register the second ad due to the clutter.
Simplicity means clarity and clarity means a greater chance of getting your message across. Staying in the sports arena, former Arsenal FC Manager, Arsene Wenger, was famous for saying nothing in his half time team talks.
He would be silent and let players talk and shout at each other. Then in the last few minutes, he would say one, maybe two, things for the team to focus on in the second half. He kept his communication simple.
And the Brexit message from the conservatives was simple.
There is no additional explanation to understand. In 5 seconds you know the score. Even if we broaden out and go to the Conservative party’s website you see just 6 clear and succinct policies.
Whereas the Labour Party website is more complex.
There are multiple manifestos for different social subgroups, but there’s no simple statement to summarise each area.
The visitor to the site has to do a lot more work to figure out what they stand for, and obviously few people actually visit the website. When you read or listen to news coverage of Labour’s policies, the manifesto of promises is far-reaching. Whereas the conservatives were heavily criticised for a “thin” manifesto that didn’t say much. However, it was far easier for people to know what they stood for. Again this isn’t a critique of Labour’s policies, just their comms strategy.
When selling a product to people, advertising doesn’t necessarily convince. It gives people an excuse. It gives them a story to justify their position. People have often made up their mind and are looking for stories to back up their decision. This is known as confirmation bias, and we’ve all succumbed to it at one time or another. Personally, I know I’ve looked through online product reviews for the one that backs up my decision. We’re looking for a narrative, and the Conservatives had a clear simple story. A message that easily justifies our decision. eg. I’m done with all this Brexit arguing, I just want it done.
This made it easier for the floating voter to build a justification to give the Tory’s their vote. Whereas Labour, by trying to satisfy every one in their manifesto, didn’t have a strong take-home message. But to communicate successfully you need a single reason to believe. Or as said in adland, a single-minded proposition.
An undecided voter would have found it hard to connect with Labour. It wasn’t clear what they stood for. They didn’t subconsciously find a reason to back up their beliefs for voting labour. Whereas the Tory reasoning was much more solid.
And that’s partly why I believe Labour lost…
Thanks for reading and I’m keen for your thoughts on my thoughts.
And for full disclosure, I vote Green.
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