Is the Lib-Dem surge really down to Nice Nick’s TV manner or is there a brand dynamic playing out behind the choice?
The format of the ITV broadcast, with its simplistic game show/supermarket colour scheme, shouting MC was certainly more supermarket sweep than parliamentary debate. But there was a deeper brand effect in the very equal yet empty presentation of the brand choice ‘on the shelf’. I felt like I was being asked to ‘compare the politi-kat’ rather than engage in issues and as such began to make decisions based not on my allegiance to any particular brand but on a calculation of risk and reward similar to that observed when people shop for insurance on the real internet comparison sites.
In past elections we have had the challenger brand (New Labour 1997) who becomes the confident brand leader (Labour next two terms) versus the weak ‘challenger’ who made the mistake of believing the loss of trust was fixed by going back to its roots and core vote. All very Virgin/Branson vs. BA.
Now consumers of politics – or shopper/voters – are faced with two brands whose trust is shot to hell and who are both experiencing something of a crisis of authenticity and identity which is familiar to many conventionally structured brands in the first decade of the 21st century. Conventional messaging – be it stage managed stomps or familiar attack posters – is dead in the water. We switched off to that type of persuasion long ago. In fact, you might argue that such tactics only have the effect of reinforcing the "compare the polikat" effect which is benefiting the Lib-dems – when faced with a choice of three things which seem to function in broadly the same way (or which you aren’t prepared to risk betting the farm on) you will go for the middle choice – not the most expensive (socialist promises/increased spending) and not the cheapest/offering to save you money (conservative austerity/cuts) but somewhere in between.
Perhaps it is a function of the politics of fear (Brown selling fear of Conservatives, who are in turn selling fear of Gordon) that we are looking for a safe choice insurance policy – one which the Lib dems have found themselves serendipitously able to capitalize upon. Perhaps, this election and potential hung parliament will therefore not be a function of dirty politics, negative campaiging or an outdated electoral system, but simply the outcome of making politics a function of consumer choice?