With just weeks to go before a referendum on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, the United Kingdom is divided. And lately, one element in particular is ratcheting up the animosity: a content marketing campaign from the UK government.
This spring, the UK government spent £9.3m ($13.5 million) on leaflets to promote the value of staying in the EU. Of that, almost £3m of the total budget was spent on the accompanying website and “digital promotion.” The leaflets were sent to every household in England in April, and to Scotland and Wales this month. The slick content outlined the government position, but some people are worried that it will unfairly influence the electorate’s view.
Could this controversial content marketing campaign decide the UK’s European future?
Critics note that the leaflets were printed and distributed ahead of the official ‘purdah’ period, which sets strict guidelines on what campaigners can spend and how they must label their material.
Between April 15 and ending at the close of polling in June, each party can spend a maximum of £7m and is entitled to £650,000 in public funding for TV broadcasts, mailshots, and other publicity. In this case, however, the campaign cost significantly more than the country’s official parties, Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave, are allowed to spend.
The 16-page brochure and its accompanying EU Referendum digital hub sparked such furor that 220,000 people signed an online petition for Prime Minister David Cameron to stop using taxpayer money on pro-EU content. The petition led to a debate in Parliament on May 9.
Member of Parliament (MP) Paul Scully, a Tory Eurosceptic, introduced the debate, suggesting that “the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page.”
Conservative MP John Redwood summed up the whole argument in just two sentences: “No previous Labour or Conservative government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not, therefore, a scandal?”
A third Conservative MP, Andrew Percy, insisted that if voters decide to remain in the EU by a narrow margin, many “will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document.”
The leaflets might seem like an outdated mode of reaching the electorate, but Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, claimed that printed leaflets distributed through mail still trump digital campaigning and social conversations when it comes to political campaigning because of their ability to reach the older generations who are more likely to go out and vote.
“Political parties would not spend millions of pounds each election putting this stuff out if it didn’t work,” he said.
Crowley told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One that such leaflets are the second-most effective way to convert voters, only trailing face-to-face contact. Leaflets are also a “cheap” and “relatively easy” alternative. “It’s still the main mechanism by which voters hear from political organizations. It dwarfs every other form of contact,” he added.
Little, then, has changed from 1975, when Britain last held a referendum on its relationship with Europe. Back then, government leaflets backing Britain’s membership of the bloc were also seen as decisive.
“That government leaflet had a huge impact on people who are normally non-voters,” Shirley Williams, a cabinet minister in the Labour government at the time, told the Huffington Post UK last year.
But digital campaigning has still emerged as an important platform in the debate. Both sides are leveraging a large social media presence, as well as key figures such as former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne.
As of today, Vote Leave is closing in on 390,000 Facebook fans and 45,000 Twitter followers. Britain Stronger in Europe, by comparison, has about 410,000 Facebook fans and 29,000 Twitter followers. The cult of celebrity is certainly playing its part on Facebook.
The Leave campaign might have fewer Facebook fans than its rival, but it has driven more than 1 million page interactions in the last month, more than double Britain Stronger in Europe. Two popular video posts from Johnson, “Boris is right” and “Boris reacts to Govt EU leaflet,” fueled a lot of the engagement.
With polls showing the two sides neck and neck, it’s far from certain how Britain will vote. What is certain, however, is that the row over content marketing will rumble on.