Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Reply to Mike Smithson on PoliticalBetting.com

People who know me know that two of my great passions are gambling (mainly horses) and politics so I'm naturally an avid reader of PoliticalBetting.com.  Despite being a LibDem the author and proprietor Mike Smithson is generally pretty astute and a smart reader of the political winds.  I'm also proud that be briefly helped support my alma mater, The University of York in its fundraising efforts.  

However, it has to be said in a post today Mike has called things totally wrong in his suggestion that paid-for political advertising should be introduced to the UK.  

Mike advances a number of arguments in favour of his basic position;

1) Engagement: "Surely if we want to encourage more people to be interested in the political process then the full range of communication tools should be available to those who are seeking our votes?"

2) Young Voters: "If there’s an issue, as there is, about involving the younger generations in the political process then the parties should be able to reach them by being able to advertise on the TV channels that they watch. It would make for very different General Election campaigns"

3) Distortion: "It completely distorts election campaigning leading to the theatricals of poster unveilings in order to create something visual for the TV bulletins"

He then lobs in a final throwaway line about the impact of money, "At the same time we need tougher political funding rules."

I'm going to look at each of these in turn - using the experience I had in America in the run up to the November elections to explain why I think Mike is totally and utterly misguided.  

I'll take 1 and 2 together.  Simple facts: we are watching less TV and young people are reducing their viewing by more than the total population.  Using the total viewing summary data from BARB and using the most recent data and the the earliest data available (2009 and 1992 respectively) for the last complete week in April (the week we're in at the moment) you can see that in w/e 26th April 1992 average daily reach (ie, how many people watched TV) was 81.8.  By w/e April 25th 2009, the average daily reach was 76.7%.  This is decline is likely to have accelerated even further since then with increasing broadband penetration.  Young people are watching even less TV: 'Younger People Are Watching Less TV'.  TV advertising is increasingly irrelevant as companies switch their spend to digital or experiential marketing.  I do this for a living so I know.  

Argument 3: Even if it wasn't increasingly irrelevant I love the false opposite of suggesting that allowing for TV advertising of political messages would reduce the amount of 'distortion' in politics.  Everyone knows how vicious the political advertising gets in America - I had a small experience  of this when I was driving through California back in October - you can read it here.  

Finally, and for me, the most compelling argument.  No-one, literally no-one (except Smithson), wants political TV advertising in the UK.  Frankly, almost no-one in the US with the exception of TV companies and big lobbyists want it there!  Every time I talked politics with people in the US I explained how the UK doesn't have TV advertising and the universal reaction was, "that would be great".  See here, here and here for some contemporary context.  

The huge spend in American elections is well know but this article really brought home for me: "A total of £31m ($49m) was spent by all parties in the last general election in the UK two years ago - making US spending 120 times as much, and 23 times as much per person".  This means that candidates are in thrall to the big donors and spend more time raising money rather than either governing or listening to their voters.  

The poisonous impact of big-money in US elections is horrific enough but it doesn't even drive up engagement or turnout!  "The average turnout for [UK] general elections between 1918 and 2010 is a respectable 73.3%".  In the US turnout over a similar time period hovers around mid to high fifties.  So a country with spend 23 times higher and with a direct election for a president (rather than kind-of proxy elections for a Prime Minister) is around 15ppt poorer at turning out to the polling station.  

Political TV advertising: irrelevant, unwanted and ineffective.  Just say no.  

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