Think Facebook ads have been the biggest political campaigning tool of the general election? Think again. Spending on leaflets and direct mail has been consistently sky-high since parties started reporting their campaign expenditure in 2000. And it continues to outstrip spend on digital platforms by some margin.
In the 2001 general election, in which Labour’s Tony Blair ultimately prevailed against Conservative leader William Hague, the main parties’ aggregate spending on what the Electoral Commission calls “unsolicited material to electors” – essentially, leaflets – was £2,969,420, the second biggest expenditure category after advertising. (Some of the spending on leaflet and direct mail is sometimes included under the advertising label, an Electoral Commission spokesperson says.)
By the time of the 2015 general election, political parties’ aggregate spending on unsolicited material had grown to over £15 million out of a total spend of £37 million – by far the largest category. The same year, parties reported to have spent just £1.7 million in payments to Facebook, Google and Twitter.
When Theresa May called for a snap election two years later, the signs of a digital takeover started to show: spending on leaflets declined for the first time in over fifteen years, to £13.4 million, while money spent on Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snap (mostly in the advertising category) hit £4.3 million. Decrease notwithstanding, unsolicited material was still where parties were allocating most of their money. Figures for 2019 are not yet available.
Given the hype, you would be justified in thinking that today’s political campaigns are immaterial affairs – online battles waged between opposing armies of social media whizzes and SEO masters. Microtargeting. YouTube mastheads. Ersatz shitposting and boomer memes. It’s been the digital, social media election. If, on the other hand, you perused campaign spending reports for the last few elections, you’ll get to a different conclusion: the undisputed ruler of British politics is not the Facebook ad, the cheeky video, or the zippy Snapchat clip – but the stodgy paper leaflet.
Of course, one huge reason for the difference in spending between digital ads and paper material is down to an inescapable reality: digital ads are much cheaper than leaflets, and one pound spent on Facebook adverts is likely going to reach many more eyeballs than a pound of printed paper. Still, the question remains: why are leaflets – so prone to be shunned, crumpled or outright tossed – so persistent?
“They still work. One of the rules of campaigning is ‘follow the money’, and parties spend a lot on leaflets and direct mail,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, who has authored three books on the three most recent general elections. “People say that leaflets go straight into the bin. In fact, maybe people glance at them before they throw them in the bin. Parties wouldn’t spend so much if they didn’t think leaflets work.”
Cowley says that unsolicited material shows potential voters that someone actually bothered to go and slip a leaflet through their letterbox. “It demonstrates a presence.”
Then, of course, there’s the issue of reaching out to voters that just cannot be reached through other, fresher campaigning techniques. That includes people who do not use social media, but also people who might be on social media but are generally neutral or hostile to a given party’s message.
“People online engage with echo chambers: they link with those who share their views, follow people on Twitter who like the same things,” says Caitlin Milazzo, an associate professor of politics at the University of Nottingham. “The benefit of leaflets is that that you get out of that echo chamber – it’s actually an opportunity for parties to reach a range of voters, and not just people who are amenable to their views.”
Curiously, Milazzo says, the concept of “microtargeting” – promoting different political messages to different types of voters, a notorious technique in online political advertising – was initially applied to leaflets. “What parties traditionally did was put together some leaflets and send the same leaflets to everyone,” she says. But in the early 2000s some parties cottoned on to the fact that their bases were in fact diverse coalitions, comprising voters from different socio-economic groups and who prioritised different issues.
“The type of leaflets that you might design to appeal to different kinds of [potential voters] are different, you might want to focus on different things.” Labour, for instance started tweaking their material to hammer home different points depending on whether they were addressing liberal cosmopolitans or traditional working class voters; the Liberal Democrats understood that they had to shapeshift depending on what constituency they were targeting – bashing Labour in Labour-held seats and the Tories in Conservative constituencies.
The catch-on of leaflet differentiation explains the inexorable rise in leaflet spending over the 2001 to 2015 period. “Microtargeting is more expensive because, when printing leaflets, you have to come up with different content, different designs, you have to think up different things for different places,” Milazzo says. And so, accordingly, spending on leaflets and direct mail grew.
To implement such microtargeting, parties partially rely on data brokers. As reported by Sky News, these data brokers included credit agency Experian, which provides extremely granular classification of every household drawing on a vast array of information including crime data, GCSE results, utility bills and data on benefits. In some cases, that knowledge has been leveraged in less-than-laudable ways, such as one instance in which London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith flooded British Indian households with leaflets accusing his rival Sadiq Khan to be opposed to Indian PM Narendra Modi.
The reason why online advertising is a much hotter topic than leaflets – Milazzo says – is that adverts on Facebook or Google are practically unregulated. In contrast, all leaflets must disclose who paid for them, allowing voters to report the authors of inaccurate, libellous or hate-inciting leaflets to the authorities.
That is a pretty low bar of decency, which means that – as long as a leaflet is not outright lying – there is still plenty of scope for chicanery. One example from the ongoing campaign is the Liberal Democrats’ series of leaflets illustrated with bar charts suggesting the party might win a majority in several constituencies. In fact, the charts were based on a selective usage of polling data or past elections’ results, which many observers criticised as misleading.
But leaflets are not only about hucksterism and obfuscation: keeping track of them might in fact be revelatory of each party’s strategy at both the national and the constituency level.
According to Sym Roe, a volunteer running online leaflet archive Electionleaflets.org, leaflets from Liberal Democratic candidates all tend to include an image of party leader Jo Swinson, which chimes with Swinson’s initial bid to present herself as a prime minister in waiting. In contrast, most leaflets from Conservative candidates seem eager to sweep the party’s prospective prime minister under the rug. “Most Tory party’s leaflets don’t have a photo of Boris Johnson,– they have nothing about the PM at all,” Roe says. That dovetails with the online strategy adopted by at least 50 Conservative candidates, which focus on constituency issues while eschewing from national topics like Brexit.
The people behind that masterplan, the political communication experts of London-based firm Westminster Digital, are borderline contemptuous of the very concept of leaflets, which they deem as befitting of a pizza delivery business rather than a political party. Craig Dillon, Westminster Digital’s founder and CEO, hopes that this election will finally kill the leaflet, and usher in the victory of online ads over their elderly paper brothers.
“The best thing about this election is that it has forced parties into embracing digital because people don’t open the doors when it’s dark and cold. If we were running this election in summer, it would be the same as 2017– with all these volunteers putting leaflets through doors, knocking on doors,” Dillon says. “They’ve got to try something new, they can’t get the people to come and volunteer on a freezing night. So the only way to reach people is on digital.”
He says that, while the expenditure reports for this election have not been published yet, from his experience working with his clients he expects spending on leaflets to be much lower than in previous elections. And, according to Cowley, he might be onto something. “My assumption for this general election would be that spending on leaflets is down but still fairly high,” he says. “But yes, it might be the turning point, with spending on digital overtaking leaflets for the first time.”
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