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23 October 2019updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

“They’re doing this badly on purpose“: Why the Tories’ latest online ads look so ugly

Welcome to the era of political shitposting.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

If you live on Twitter, you may have been doubly outraged yesterday by the sight of a fusillade of “Get Brexit Done” posts machine gunned out from the Conservatives’ official Twitter account. There were nine in total, posted in a 24-hour period between Monday and Tuesday, all of them equally offensive – even if you’re pro-Boris Johnson and pro-Brexit.

There was the Comic Sans one, where the phrase “MPs must come together and get Brexit done” was emblazed in black on a white background, like the sort of thing your grandmother would do when first confronted with Microsoft Word. There was the your dad found MS Paint Impact on Big Ben one. There was the 1980s matchday special one, looking like the opening titles of Grandstand from the decade style forgot.

There was the odd Jamaican one in yellow, green and black, and the 1950s deco seaside postcard one. There was the builders’ merchant one, with a colour washed picture of the House of Commons chamber, and the standard issue mid-2010s Tory election poster one. There was the “DONE. DONE. DONE. DONE” one, and the Mr Blobby one, pink text on a yellow background. There was the 1970s chocolate bar ad one, with oddly cursive copy in primary colours. 

People are divided as to whether it works as political messaging. “It’s quite different, and that does make it intriguing,” says Andrew Chadwick, professor of political communication at Loughborough University. “Most political communication strategy has been about professionalism and slick attention to detail. These posts look like they’ve been crafted to avoid that look.”

“The Comic Sans one is the one that tips you to the fact they’re doing this badly on purpose,” says Cally Gatehouse, graphic designer and lecturer at Northumbria University. “It’s such a cliché of purposely bad graphic design – but some of them aren’t. I’m never really sure what’s going on when right wing people use irony.”

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Go back to the weekend, and there are even more examples – another five, all in different designs but with the same message. It’s not coincidentally the same message the Prime Minster has been plugging for weeks.

Welcome to the era of political shitposting. “The Wikipedia definition of ‘shitposting’ is posting large amounts of content ‘aggressively, ironically, and of trollishly poor quality’ to an online forum or social network, in some cases intended to derail discussions or otherwise make the site unusable to its regular visitors,” explains James Whatley, strategy partner at marketing agency Digitas UK. “It has been deployed by online trolls, terrorists, mass-murderers, and now seemingly, the Conservative communications team.”

Whatley compares it to the final two stages of the classic Soviet-era weaponisation of information: dismiss, distort, distract and dismay. “The Conservatives know their audience. They’re playing to their right of centre – and arguably their new fans on the extreme right – by quite purposefully trolling the liberals. In short: it is a wind up,” he says. “Some are wise to it, others are not. Like all online trolls, however, the best course of action is to ignore it and focus on the real problems of the day instead.” 

The awfully designed graphics can serve a purpose. “I can see that they’re trying to portray this isn’t your slick, metropolitan elite graphic designer working on this feed: this is real people, using Comic Sans,” says Gatehouse. “Bad design often can be a way of tapping into a more authentic, grass roots voice.”

That’s something Jay Owens, an independent trends analyst, agrees with. “I think the Conservatives are testing different graphic design styles to see what sticks,” she says. “But I think they’re also using design to reach into new audiences.”

Owens points out that one of the posts plays on clubland aesthetics. “If you wanted to gain reach into a young, creative Millennial segment the Tories normally couldn’t reach, this is a great way to do it – and indeed, it’s being discussed in depth by tastemakers like Mat Dryhurst, an electronic musician based in Berlin, and graphic design names such as David Rudnik and Metahaven.”

“Being ugly can be quite a clever strategy,” says Rob Blackie, a digital strategy adviser in politics, who is standing as a Lib Dem candidate in London. “I would be encouraging it because getting noticed is so hard in the modern political domain that you have to be interesting in some form and there aren’t many persuadable people left on this issue.”

Chadwick, too, recognises the comparison with the standard messaging of the extreme right. “‘Playful’ and ‘ironic’ online communication has become an essential part of the repertoire of the extreme right online. It finds its way into a whole range of so-called ‘alt-right venues’,” he says. “I’m not saying the Tories are the extreme right, but they must have some awareness of the cultural move they’re making.”

It’s not coincidental that the deliberately poorly designed posts come shortly after the Conservatives brought in PR firm Topham Guerin, who helped the Australian Liberal party beat Labor in May’s elections in the country. Scott Morrison’s victory there was partly propelled by equally shoddy graphic design – nicknamed “boomer memes” for their gaudy design and crass imagery designed to resonate with older voters, or baby boomers. One person working on the campaign told the Sydney Morning Herald: “We’d make them really basic and deliberately lame because they’d get shares and lift our reach.”

It also comes shortly after Peter Heneghan, a former communications director at LADbible and BuzzFeed, arrived in Downing Street. (Neither Ben Guerin of Topham Guerin, nor Peter Heneghan responded to requests for comment.)

It also serves a purpose: we’re talking about the way in which the Tories are distributing their message, but we’re also having to repeat the key phrase they want to broadcast, too. “The point is virality,” says Chadwick – “an attempt to get the message to travel beyond their immediate supporter networks online. Even if it means opponents will mock the posts as they spread them, they’re still spreading them.”

Others aren’t so sure that it works. Scott Wark is a researcher in memes at the University of Warwick. “These images tried to turn ‘get Brexit done’ into a meme that would circulate online,” he says. “That they failed – when I checked, the most popular one had around 3,000 retweets, which is nothing – suggests a couple of things.”

For one thing, there’s “absolutely nothing transgressive” about Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, says Wark. “Their absurdities are all right there on the surface. They don’t lend themselves to ironic cultural production because embracing these absurdities is reactionary, not revolutionary.” And for another, it fails as a meme: it’s just a message, heard over and over.

Of course, it’s all pointless – which is just what the Conservatives want. Rather than talking about the faltering state of Brexit negotiations, or the fact that the Prime Minister has admitted that – rather than die in a ditch, he’s realising he’ll have to postpone Brexit beyond 31 October, we’re talking about how terribly designed some images on tweets are.

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