PRmoment Leaders PA Mediapoint PA Assignments PRCA PRmoment Awards Winners North Creative Moment Awards 2024 PR Masterclass: AI in PR

The crucial role of the meme #Project Fear in Brexit

Still wondering what happened in the Referendum with a Leave vote victory that surprised the global markets, institutions, and even the Leave campaign supporters? The way the Leave campaign won the ‘meme war’ offers useful lessons for you and your next campaign.

Mention ‘memes’ and the fashion now is to think of viral internet messages that capture people’s imagination and get shared. 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.

Powerful memes are ‘sticky’. They have a coherence, often easily visualised or memorable in some way, and are easily copyable, so that they can be passed on intact, to grow and grow.

Thinking 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 £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 made a half-hearted token attempt at creating memes. Its key message claimed the average UK household would be £4,300 a year worse off. Yet, I can’t visualise £4,300 a year. I can, however, picture in my mind’s eye £330 a month or £82 a week.

The Leave’s #TakeBackControl was much more vigorous and self-asserting, making you unconsciously feel better about yourself than the rival #StrongerTogether. 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.

Whilst 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-to-pass-on, 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-mindness, 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. This is not about lying, or wilfully misleading people but rather understanding how our brains and ultimately communications works.

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

Written by Andy Green, founder of consultancy Story Starts Here  

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for free to our twice weekly editorial alert.

We have six email alerts in total - covering ESG, internal comms, PR jobs and events. Enter your email address below to find out more: