July 1, 2016 Andy Green

How Leave won the Meme Wars in Referendum and lessons for you


The UK is still reeling from a Referendum vote that surprised the global markets, institutions, and even the Leave campaign supporters.

One lesson is how the Remain campaign lost the ‘Meme War’.

Mention ‘memes’ and the fashion now is to think of virial Internet messages that capture people’s imagination and get passed on.

Yet memes are more profound, I would argue they form the DNA of communications, of how information gets passed on, received and crucially passed-on again.

And what’s clear the Leave campaign won its Meme War – by gaining a disproportionate part of popular culture – leading to a majority result in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Powerful memes are ‘sticky’. By that I mean they have a coherence, often easily visualised or memorable in some way, and are easily copyable. As a result, they are easily remembered and can be passed on intact, and can grow and grow.

Think back to the Referendum campaign, what messages can you remember?

The Leave side’s ‘Take Back Control’ message, #Project Fear response to any expert opinion or surveys, the message that the UK’s National Health Service would get each week/month £350 million by not being in the Euro, its flamboyant and charismatic leaders – notably Boris Johnson from the Conservatives and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, Boris’s red campaign bus that toured the country, and the latest immigrant, or manifestation of immigration you saw on your last trip around town.

And from the Remain side…

The Remain side failed to recognise that facts and information alone are weak communications.

The Remain campaign failed to create Brand Icons – the pictures in your head when your Brand name is mentioned.

The Remain campaign had a half-hearted token attempt at creating memes. One of their key messages was they claimed how the average UK household would be £4,300 a year. Yet, I can’t visualise £4,300 a year so the message will more likely wash over me, fail to be believable or stick. I can however, picture in my mind’s eye £330 a month or £82 a week.

Their message of #strongertogether lacked an ability to make people feel better as a result of digesting the information. The Leave’s #TakeBackControl was much more vigorous and self-asserting, making you unconsciously feel better about yourself.

Interesting how the Welsh Football Association (WFA) employed #TogetherStronger as part of its campaign to unite Welsh football fans in the run up to, and during the Euro 2016 football tournament. This word sequence works better that the Remain campaign’s #StrongerTogether, possessing a more inherent logic: first we come together and then we’re stronger.

Also, the WFA had the advantage of possessing a core entity – Welsh football fans’ love of their country and their game – that provide a much more attractive proposition to align and bond with by being ‘together’ and subsequently be even greater as a result of the coming together, than the Remain campaign more wishy-washy ‘Stronger Together’.

Ultimately, the Leave campaign conjured up the most powerful meme of all – a Conspiracy Meme.

Armed with ‘#ProjectFear’ – that whatever other side is saying is part of a conspiracy, every time an expert, authoritative or opposing source opened their mouths they would be met with the response: ‘They’re bound to say that.’

Not only does a Conspiracy meme provide a deflective shield to bounce back any unwelcome messages, it actually gets stronger and deeper every time it’s employed. Instead of persuading someone you end up deepening the strength of their convictions.

So, how can you counter a conspiracy meme? Not by facts. But by counter-memes.

Evidently, the UK is any way not a full member of the existing ‘EU Club’ as a result of not being part of the single Euro currency, or the Schengen Agreement that allows free-er passage within countries. In reality, the UK was, as one expert estimated, just a 65% member of the EU Club.

The Leave campaign talked of establishing a new deal with Europe to retain free trade, and spoke of ‘Norway Models’ – which is not a member of the EU but complies with a certain level of EU rules to enjoy free market trading opportunities.

While you could have rationally argued that the Leave campaign’s message of ‘Take back control’ is a myth, this is a far less effective response than to retort with a counter meme of, for example, all you’re doing is ‘#TakeBack30%Control’.

This is sticky, easy-pass-onable, and ultimately could have toxified the original #TakeBackControl meme. Sure, it is not rational facts. But you can’t beat memes with facts, only by employing other more potent memes.

One of my creative heroes, advertising legend Dave Trott, talks of how middle class people hate jingles in advertising. Despite being meme-friendly, memorable and effective in achieving awareness, message retention, and ensuring front-of-mindedness, the middle class executive is likely to sneer at the prospect of using a jingle in their communications.

Why? Because middle-class executives are successful people on the back of being more intelligent, rational, and logical. Jingles are more likely, and falsely, in their mind just to appeal to unintelligent, lower-class people.

Whenever I run a meme campaign workshop I keep the numbers taking part low. This minimises the risk of logical, middle-class minds expressing their discomfort and undermining the delicate process of creating sticky messaging.

Going forward, the UK needs to create a new narrative, needs to work to build greater Social Capital to bring a divided community together, abut will need to take a lesson from the Leave campaign of the critical need to win the Meme Wars.

Are you guilty of being snobby and reluctant to dirty your hands with memes?

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