Ed Miliband's energy price freeze was one of his finest moments. Photo: Getty
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Why haven't Labour's other proposals matched the success of their energy price freeze plan?

The lessons in communication and research political parties can learn from how Ed Miliband's energy price freeze announcement played out.

Energy prices have been back in the news recently as Ed Miliband’s fabled freeze started to thaw under the heat of changing oil prices and condemnation from various business leaders. Of course so much fuss has been made of the rhetorical conversion from “freeze” to “cap” because the policy had previously been one of Labour’s major wins this parliament. Their opponents are now smiling as it appears to have fallen apart.

Economics and the merit of the idea aside however, the announcement surrounding the energy price freeze does still represent an interesting case study of Labour effectively combining campaign communications and research.

When Miliband first announced the idea on that sunny September afternoon in Brighton in 2013, he took just about everyone by surprise. It had not leaked nor been briefed and came as a genuine shock not just to the public, but also to those in the media and the know. Labour had clearly done their research, with an insider memorably reported as enthusing that their focus groups had shown support for the idea “off the charts”. ComRes had also may have played a part, having polled on energy prices for BBC Radio 5Live’s Energy Day earlier in the month – and found a fairly ugly mood among consumers. Resentment towards energy companies about labyrinthine tariffs, seemingly endless price increases and poor customer service had been well known for years but seldom activated politically, at least in this Parliament.

This changed with Miliband’s pledge. The Labour news grid appeared, on this occasion, to light up, with Miliband and Caroline Flint touring the news rooms, followed by an article a few days later by Douglas Alexander claiming the idea to be the intellectual descendant of New Labour’s popular windfall tax on energy companies in 1997.

Despite focus groups not tending to produce charts, public polling soon proved the Labour strategist’s point as levels of support for the plan were shown reaching astonishing levels of up to 80 per cent, which in turn took the story into another news cycle. Here at ComRes we first knew of the pledge’s success not when we saw the numbers, but when various clients asked to move the focus of their regular polling away from the upcoming Conservative Conference as had been planned, and towards testing attitudes towards the energy price freeze instead. Newspaper columns were filled with debates about the policy throughout the rest of the autumn. Radio talk shows spent weeks discussing it.

Curiously though, as some mentioned at the time, was that the next general election looked as if it might swing on the seemingly negligible issue of an £80 annual change to energy bills. It paled in comparison to other issues of the day such as the war in Syria, youth unemployment or a public debt running above £1tn. The key to the appeal of the energy price freeze though, was not how much it affected people, but how many people felt it would affect them – even if only negligibly.

Having proposals with a wide appeal may appear obvious, but stands in complete contrast to the strategy the party then took ahead of its disappointing European election campaign last year. Here Labour had a series of announcements lined up, all connected by their cost of living theme: extending free childcare, capping rent increases and creating a state-owned corporation to compete against private companies for rail franchises in an attempt to bring down commuting costs.

Also linking these issues was that they were meant to be low incidence but high salience proposals: only a small proportion of the population would be affected, but those people would benefit in a big way. As can be seen from ComRes polling at the time, although relatively few people were concerned about the cost of housing (23 per cent), public transport (16 per cent) and childcare (10 per cent), they were all issues which clearly had obvious segments of the population interested in them (renters, commuters, parents of young children).

(Click on graph to enlarge).

The thinking behind this appeared to be a desire to emulate Barack Obama’s successful Presidential re-election campaign in 2012, where voters were apparently delivered hyper-targeted messages focusing on the issues they cared about most. It was also perhaps indirectly influenced by the current corporate Steve Jobs-inspired vogue for niche products, following Apple’s ascent through a relentless focus on quality, good design and for many years, catering to a fairly small but incredibly loyal segment of the market (The Economist and Moleskin being other commonly cited examples of this).

Unlike Labour though, Obama’s campaign had a billion dollars and the most sophisticated digital campaign infrastructure ever and thus was supposedly able to deliver these localised messages. One might also question how influential this approach actually was or whether the election result simply reflected President Obama’s superiority over a gaffe-prone, fairly middle-of-the-road opponent.

In any case, with Labour’s digital strategy focused on mobilising volunteers rather than winning the hearts of the general public, it relies on other media to deliver its message to voters.

This made it very difficult to construct an effective communications campaign around its “low incidence” pledges at the European elections. The ideas likely went down well in focus groups among key demographics but gained little traction when released during the campaign.

Whereas large numbers of people felt resonance with the energy price freeze, relatively few felt the same about rent increase caps or expanded childcare. This meant that beyond the original announcements, Labour received little media attention for their proposals. As they were of interest to only few of the press’s readers and the broadcasters’ viewers, there was little incentive for them to produce more content on the issues. The lack of traction for the proposals, together with Ed Miliband’s mixed popularity with his own side, also meant few MPs were willing to keep repeating the lines about them and that message discipline broke down. All of which undoubtedly contributed to an underwhelming second place European election finish with 26 per cent of the vote. Even now, there is precious little chance of stopping a random person on the street and their knowing about any of Labour’s pledges on railways or rents.

So what are the lessons? First, don’t forget the medium: however attractive a policy is, it will only be popular if people know about it, which means that you need a way of telling them. This requires having something to offer the people you want to carry your message.

Second, follow a strategy that marries research and communications expertise, with clear messaging based on robust evidence. There are plenty of communications professionals who try passing a finger in the air as insight, but data on a page also has its limitations. Research should be translated into actionable findings and clear guiding principles which can then be combined with political knowledge to form a comprehensive and coherent strategy.

Which just leaves us with the general election. This all suggests it will not be won and lost on niche issues, but on general perceptions and feelings about one or two major issues which affect everyone. There are likely to be related to the NHS, personal leadership qualities and one of the main variants of economic trust (growth, proceeds of growth, cost of living). And, as Ed Miliband knows from his experience of the energy price cap issue, the winner will need more than a little luck.

Adam Ludlow is a consultant at ComRes

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA