September 18th 2014 | Scotland

US political campaigners question Better Together’s strategy


By Liam Kirkaldy

Two seasoned US political campaigning experts have questioned the thinking behind Better Together’s latest campaign ad, warning that it runs of the risk of patronising women, with one messaging professional describing the Yes counterpart as ‘far and away better.’

Holyrood approached two communication and polling experts – Jason Boxt, Managing Director of The Glover Park Group and Robert Moran, a partner at the Brunswick Group – to get their take on both Yes and Better Together’s new adverts.

Both experts agreed the Yes advert was more effective, warning that Better Together’s broadcast runs the risk of patronising women.

The pro-union advert – featuring a woman discussing Scottish independence in her kitchen and moving from being undecided to vowing to vote No – has been widely mocked on social media following its release by the campaign yesterday, with commentators describing it as patronising and misjudged.

Boxt also suggested that the strategy adopted by Better Together had parallels with the Quebec referendum, when a nationalist minister labelled female No supporters as ‘Yvettes’ – slang for a docile school girl from a school text book.

The move backfired, leading women resentful at being called obedient organising a string of rallies – under the name ‘the Yvettes’ – which helped to win the vote for No.

Boxt suggested that the clumsiness of Better Together’s ad could push women towards Yes in a similar way to how the ‘Yvette’ slur pushed women towards No in Quebec.

Moran said: "I wouldn't run an ad with that tone in the US.  It felt a bit like she was the nervous "little lady" that just couldn't decide.  I think American women would react poorly to this."

On the Yes broadcast, Boxt said: “It is far and away better than the Better Together ad. Aspirational, emotional - exactly where I said Yes needed to be.”

Moran echoed these comments, saying: “The message was a blend of emotional appeal and persuasion on the economic merits. Most interesting to me was the line about the parallels between independence in our lives and independence of the nation.  I would have liked to see the focus groups when they tested that.”

But although Moran told Holyrood that the No video did risk appearing patronising, Better Together would only have aired it if tests had proved it effective at reaching the target audience – undecided female voters.

Moran said: “My quick reaction is that this is a well targeted ad at undecided women in households where the man is Yes. Not only that, it targets middle aged women with children in these households.”

“Like most advanced campaigns, they have enough data to finely cut the electorate and discover this segment. The message is sound and standard for a No side in a referendum, raise questions and concerns and make a Yes vote risky. I'm sure they tested it before airing.”

But he added: “That said, while the production value and message were strong, I did wonder if this might not feel a bit patronising.”

Boxt said he agreed with Moran’s assessment, adding: “If she were truly deliberating, she hardly comes across that way, moving from “I don’t know” to “No” in the span of 90 seconds, without any kind of real deliberation, of a truly confused or deliberating voter. It feels a little discordant to me. I would have liked it better if it left off with a less definitive, “I really just don’t know if I believe the Yes side.”

Moran and Boxt – who have worked for both the Democrat and Republican campaigns in the US – were in Edinburgh earlier this month speaking at the Festival of Politics, where they suggested that due to its binary nature the referendum campaign had parallels with US political campaigning, though they argued the tone of the debate is still less febrile than that of the American system.

See both adverts here, Tom Freeman's blog comparing the two here and Liam Kirkaldy's blog on the tone of the Better Together ad here.