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Scottish Independence: Advertising Isn't Selling

05/09/2014 12:20 | Updated 05 November 2014

On September 18, people who live in Scotland will decide whether to become independent or remain part of the United Kingdom. The result of this referendum is so important, so dangerous and so unprecedented and yet the communications to date from both the Scottish National Party and Better Together have been incredibly weak. Why is this? And whatever the result, what role should communications take as the necessary process of reconciliation and rebuilding begins?

The Better Together and SNP's advertising all looks the same and says the same thing. Women, babies and messages of love for Scotland abound. It's clearly going for an emotional response, but it's bland. You could swap their logos and it wouldn't make much of a difference. The only stuff with any real punch hasn't come from the political parties, but has been created by the general public and shared on the internet.

Either of them could have done something that was far more provocative, but obviously decided it was too 'risky'. But what risk? I am, of course, a passionate believer in the power of advertising to sell products and ideas, to be a force for change and for good. But there is strong evidence that even the most famous political campaigns, such as the Conservative's own Tony Blair's eyes, do not have a significant impact on voting intention.

Highly visible political advertising does, however, have the ability to set the news agenda. But it's got to be interesting to make news. So is bland work, with absolutely no impact better than risking some attention at least? In the context of consumer brands, making so-called 'brave' work doesn't result in either glorious success or total disaster, but rather in glorious success or no change at all. Safe work will only ever maintain the status quo.

Unfortunately for BT, they have found it very difficult to move the debate from an emotional one to a rational one. Their arguments simply aren't cutting through. 'Nationhood' is a complex, slippery and emotional issue, but in the long run it is the rational that will count. Warren Buffet once said. "In the short term the market is a voting machine. In the long run it is a weighing machine" - maybe something similar applies here.

Like all parties with the name of a country in their title, at it's heart, the SNP agitates on a single topic. It's an easy, challenger brand stance. But here we're not talking about your choice of airline, soft drink or mobile phone.

There's no doubt that Scotland is enjoying being the centre of attention. And this is boosting Salmond's popularity. To use a football analogy, while BT's tactics may have been better, Salmond is appealing directly to the crowd, and it's proving a difficult strategy to counter. The SNP's work hasn't been very good to date, but because of this, they may just win the match anyway.

Voters should beware the fickle nature of fame. In six months' time, the outside world and the media will have moved on and both Scotland and the rest of Britain may be left with the irreversible legacy of a Yes vote. Nothing will really change in Scotland for at least two years. During this time, the 50% that voted for change will become disillusioned, adding their number to the angry 50% that voted no. And once Salmond's promises of Norwegian-style success built on a save and austerity strategy falls foul of his tax and spend reality, what then?

But the real consequences of a Yes vote is not solely for Scotland but for the rest of the country. Internally, there will be a crisis of identity and a lot of national soul searching. Once an empire, now we can't even keep our own island together. The political repercussions - Cameron's inevitable departure a fractured Conservative party with more defections to UKIP and a resurgence of the Eurosceptics running on a 'we're leaving' ticket - will be huge. Externally, Britain's powerful position and brand on a global stage will suffer. Socially and commercially, it's a decision that will harmful for some time to come. And Yes or No, what harms the UK harms Scotland.

Advertising may not have had the power to change people's minds in this referendum, but whatever the result, communications must deal with the fallout, be part of the necessary reconciliation and rebuilding going forward. But they will need to be a lot braver if they are to succeed.