Would you answer the door to Boris Johnson? A woman in suburbia certainly would, based on the Conservatives’ latest political advert. In a pastiche of Richard Curtis’s schlocky 2003 film Love Actually, the prime minister turns up at the door of a potential voter, imploring her to vote for him by silently showing a selection of posterboards emblazoned with handwritten messages.
Boris Johnson is not Mark, the soppy character played by Andrew Lincoln who professes his love in the same way in the movie. And the messaging – “On December 12th, your vote will make all the difference” – is certainly not going to rival “To me, you are perfect” for making the heart beat quicker.
“The emotional packaging is desperation,” reckons Scott Wark, a research associate at the University of Warwick who studies memes. “Maybe it will cut through with Twitter users, who are typically the right demographic to have an affinity for this film, but it might also turn into a negative viral meme.”
It’s just another strange turn in the hellish vortex that has been the 2019 general election. And it’s emblematic of the way politics – and political advertising – is becoming memeified.
So why have the Conservatives done this? In part, it’s taking advantage of the timing of the election: we are preternaturally disposed to soppiness this time of year, as a generation’s worth of John Lewis Christmas adverts will attest to. Boris Johnson stamping his feet against the cold on a wintry doorstep, Christmas lights twinkling in the distance, helps humanise a man who yesterday refused to look at a photograph of a child lying on a Leeds hospital floor.
It’s also because they know it’s so off the wall that it will drive the media into apoplexy about the strange new science of political advertising – and as with every incumbent party, talking about the medium, and not necessarily the message, is beneficial as it helps deflect from their failings.
However, it’s also for one self-evident truth: the general public lap it up. “Both major parties have really tried to memeify their political messages this election,” says Wark. “They see memes as a way to repackage their messages with different emotions or affects.”
Political advertising has been in stasis for decades, the result of uninspired PR creatives taking direction from limp-sandwich focus groups that are apathetic with a political class that is as listless and uninspiring as it ever been. Cast your minds back over the last half-century of “iconic” political advertising and you’ll probably only come up with a handful of adverts that cut through. The most recent ones that come to mind are likely to be Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster and the £350m NHS claim daubed on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus, neither of which are remembered for being good, but instead for being misleading or offensive.
One list of ten “famous” political posters includes a terrible Photoshop of Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling as Jedward, a testament to the embarrassingly low bar that passes for “good” in political advertising.
But that’s changed. Regardless of which side you look at in this election, there’s been a dynamism in the messaging and advertising – embodied by younger, more creative individuals in positions of power in the Tory and Labour teams. And with the ability to mass-produce messages quickly and disseminate them through social media to see what cuts through, they’re being far more creative and borrowing from digital culture and more specifically, memes. Political adverts are funny – see independent campaigner David Gauke’s resolution to use colleague Rory Stewart in his advertising without ever mentioning him, a Naked Gun-esque trope – and they’re, dare we say it, clever.
Like with everything else, the UK is lagging behind the United States in this. Zac Moffatt, CEO of a marketing agency and former digital director for Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 US presidential campaign, told Digiday earlier this year that “Campaigns from the official side have not wanted to touch [memes] historically,” but that’s changing. “It’s like all things in social media, balancing humanising and diminishing,” he said. “You’re starting to see a seismic shift now. There’s a mass-market appeal.”
The Conservatives likely chose to co-opt Love Actually for their leader after seeing the success a Labour candidate, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, had in borrowing the pivotal scene from Richard Curtis’s film two weeks ago. Her original video, posted on 22nd November, was seen more than 150,000 times on Facebook and nearly a million times on Twitter (its resurgence as her supporters point out how Johnson’s version rips off what she did has driven another few hundred thousand views in the last 24 hours).
That said, it’s not just about views. While getting out the message is useful, politicians also want to drive engagement and interaction. From basically nothing on her Facebook profile, Allin-Khan managed to increase her interaction rate (the total number of interactions with her video, compared to the number of likes her Facebook page had) to nearly 20 per cent. From adding one or two fans to her page every day in the run-up to her posting the Love Actually video, Allin-Khan managed to garner 178 new fans on 22 November, and another 169 the day after – small numbers, but not bad when you consider her page overall has 15,000 fans. The video had a halo effect on her social media following, adding double-digit numbers to her fanbase on Facebook every day for the week after.