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The Election Explained: TV, TikTok and letterbox leaflets – what do the campaign tactics tell us?

June 20, 2024

As we gear up for the General Election, Edge Hill’s politics team - both staff and students – will be looking ahead to what is coming and highlighting key aspects of the contest. Today, Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu, Professor of Politics, Communication and Diaspora looks at how shifting media trends influence political campaigns

In 1960, after the first ever televised political debate between Republican vice-president Richard Nixon and Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy, radio audiences thought Nixon had won, while television viewers declared Kennedy the winner. Visual media was beginning to make an impact on political campaigning.

In this country, media-style campaigning was adopted with mixed success. In 1997, Tony Blair’s communication strategists put to good use the lessons learnt on the Bill Clinton campaign trail the year before. David Cameron emulated some of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric from 2008 to win the 2010 General Election for the Conservative Party, yet he fell well short of the Obama’s unprecedented success in using social media to motivate the grassroots.

While we recognise that media are an important element of any electoral campaign – to spread the message, mobilise, attack opponents and fundraise – approaches must shift from one election to the next due to new technological opportunities and how users choose what media to consume.

The first Sunak-Starmer face-off of the campaign was watched by a mere 4.8million viewers on ITV, a drop of 2million in comparison to the Jeremy Corbyn-Boris Johnson debate of 2019. While newspaper readership has been falling for a while, we now see concrete evidence of the waning power of television too. So where are voters choosing to get their campaign information from and how are political parties adapting to the new media landscape?

Sunak v Starmer TV debate

A few media strategies stand out so far.

Unbelievably to some, Labour was quicker off the blocks than the party who called the election. Taking advantage of the nine-day window between the election announcement and the dissolution of Parliament, which signalled the official start of the campaign when candidate spending limits begin to apply, Labour spent £900,000 on a social media blitz aimed at promoting candidate name recognition on the doorstep.

By comparison, the Conservatives spent only £176,000, according to Who Tracks Me, the monitor for online political advertising. Campaign, one of the main advertising and PR magazines, confirmed that so far Labour has spent three times more on Google and Meta, with the Conservatives even pausing their online campaign ads on the 7 June, after Rishi Sunak’s D-Day PR disaster.

What is this telling us? The Conservatives are switching tactics from a wide-ranging campaign aimed at winning the elections, to a targeted campaign aimed at saving as many seats as possible. Traditional Tory voters, mostly over 50, are less likely to hang out on Instagram. We should see many more Conservative leaflets coming through the doors in traditional Tory areas vigorously challenged by Reform UK and Liberal Democrats candidates.

Watch episode two of our podcast mini-series: Should the voting age be lowered?

Watch episode 1: All about voting in the General Election 2024

Watch episode 3: Understanding the media coverage of the General Election

Labour on the other hand are recognising the usefulness of social media in getting the vote out. They fear the danger of complacency in an election that is being presented as having a known outcome. Mobilising voters and promoting local candidates has been a constant concern. Unlike the Conservatives, who have conducted an overwhelmingly negative political campaign, Labour has focused a lot more on their own policies and candidate profiles.

Often the poorer relation of our two-horse race political system, the Liberal Democrats have tried to cut through the media noise using slapstick photo opportunities. From Ed Davey spectacularly peeling off his paddleboard on Lake Windermere to Daisy Cooper photobombing the PM’s leisurely lunch in Henley-on-Thames, it has been a risky strategy. However, it is working. Voters seem to know more now about Liberal Democrats policies on sewage or elderly care, despite derision from some right-wing media quarters.

One candidate that does not lack media attention is Nigel Farage. He is now the third most prominent political personality in the media (after Sunak and Keir Starmer). Farage’s campaign style has been put to good use on TikTok. On TikTok, Reform UK has now amassed 183,000 followers (at the time of writing) and it is attempting to replicate the successful use of TikTok by the far right in the recent Euro elections. It is a platform that suits Farage’s mud-slinging style.

Before the start of the campaign some commentators were wondering whether 2024 would be the year of the “TikTok election” to rival Obama’s 2008 “Facebook election”. This now seems unlikely.

A mobile phone showing the Tik Tok app

While cheap, since no paid political advertising is allowed, TikTok has its limitations in political campaigning. Its brief videos encourage only a short attention span, which make it a difficult medium for outlining policy. It is also used by a young demographic, who is the least likely segment of the electorate to vote.

As BBC’s Undercover Voters investigation revealed, the use of fake accounts and bots, as well as a clear reliance on divisive content which fails to separate fact from satire, transforms TikTok into an unreliable and confusing source of political information.

TikTok has responded to its critics by launching a dedicated in-app General Election Centre that claims to promote political literacy and fact checking. Despite its limitations, some politicians are slowly embracing it. Labour’s official account has just surpassed Reform UK in popularity, with more than 200,000 followers at the time of writing, and many of TikTok’s reaction memes are readily trending on other platforms, leading some of the public debates and the more traditional media coverage. 

So, what has the campaign told us so far about the changing media’s role in political campaigning?

Mass mediatisation has unequivocally been replaced by micro targeting (Labour use social media to target younger voters; the Conservatives use more traditional campaigning to court the over 50s vote). Social media are now integrated into the news agenda and the political strategy of all parties and candidates. In the right context, images matter more than words. Humour can cut through the grimness of recent times.

For an election with a supposedly already decided outcome, it has been an entertaining one so far.

Listen to the latest episode of our podcast mini-series about the General Election with our resident political experts:

Read: The Election Explained: How history can guide us to the likely outcomes

Read: The Election Explained: How to make your vote count

Read: The Election Explained: The First TV Debate – Reaction

Read: The Election Explained: The Phoney War Phase

June 20, 2024

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