29 Jun 2012

David Cameron and Subliminal Campaigning.

hard working 


the right thing 

something for nothing
Have a close listen to David Cameron some time soon. He constantly repeats little trigger phrases that tap into what George Lakoff calls 'frames'. He tries to get them into every sentence. This is because, directly or indirectly, he has been advised by some of the most cunning evil geniuses from the advertising world.

Frames evoke emotional associations. So Cameron incessantly repeats 'hard working' and 'doing the right thing'. Everyone likes to think of themselves as hard working and doing the right thing. These are not Conservative values. But Cameron is using the advertising technique of constant repetition to associate the Conservative brand with these frames in our minds.

When you do this in ordinary speech is sounds a bit awkward. Listening to him you think, he sounds like an idiot. But each time he says 'hard working' there is a little response from your brain: images, attitudes, and emotions are evoked. The more often the same kind of stimulus occurs in reference to a particular set of circumstances the more we associate the two. It's just how the brain works, how we learn -- repetitions strengthens neural connections. In our natural environment this is a real advantage. In the present Cameron uses these subliminal (i.e. not quite conscious) messages to try to manipulate us. Even if we dislike Cameron we come to associate him with the frames 'hard working' and 'doing the right thing', etc. He just needs to keep peppering his speech with these triggers, say them with conviction, and the rest of what he says is just filler.

Now if you don't believe me then watch a Derren Brown show. Brown uses subliminal messages to manipulate his audience, then at the end tells them what happened. Bet on Cameron not telling us how he manipulated us. It so happens that Conservatives have a head start on this kind of thing. George Lakoff thinks that it is because conservatives are much more likely to study Business Studies at university. And they all study marketing at some point. So they caught on much earlier. And of course big business, which is broadly supportive of conservatism as a result of the deregulatory agenda, spend millions on advertising, so they have some insights as well. Progressives the world over a less interested in Business Studies. In the UK the support for Labour comes from the the working classes who typically have less education. So they seem to be struggling to catch up.

One of the facets of this approach to campaigning, and make no doubt that Cameron is in campaign mode for the next election, is that reason is distorted by belief. I've written about this in the context of religion: becoming religious is very like falling in love. I've observed that Neo-Conservatism has much in common with religion (except it offers no eschatology). What we observe about decision making is that we unconsciously decide which facts are salient by how we feel about them. This is why a person with strong convictions cannot be persuaded by facts: even if they are true, the emotional weighting tells us that the facts are not salient. What Cameron is doing is attempting to change the way we feel about facts.(See Facts and Feelings).

And this is why we get political paradoxes. Cameron repeatedly talks about 'hard work'. But he himself has had everything on a plate. He's never worked in his life, apart from a brief spell as an unpaid secretary, let alone worked hard. Most of the cabinet are the same. What's more the people benefiting most from Neo-Conservative deregulation of the economy are those who borrow money to speculate on asset prices. This requires no effort. A lot of trading is done by computers! Certainly inheriting money requires no effort. In fact the people who work hard are the obvious ones: the working class. And ironically the working class have lost out worse than any other section of society as wages have remained stagnant, union power has been eroded, and house prices have become unaffordable. Meanwhile the people who effortlessly make money have exponentially increasing salaries, access to politicians ears (often paid for), and have profited from the repeated debt fuelled asset bubbles. Cameron and his cronies have nothing in common with hard working people, and no real sympathy with them. But we can bet that hard working people will be starting to identify with Cameron because of the simple trick he is using.

Similarly Cameron says 'doing the right thing'. But he is not doing the right thing. For instance he is trying to pin the blame on our financial troubles on welfare, when we really know it was deregulated banks. We know that successive governments allowed banks freer and freer reign. And they used this to line their own pockets and beggar the nations of the world. £1 trillion to bail them out, and now we find that half of them were cheating on interest rates! Nor are many of Cameron's friends and associates 'doing the right thing': Rebecca Brooks, James Murdock, Andy Coulson, Jeremy Hunt; George Robinson, Philip Green and a host of other Tory Party Donors. Now the vaunted banks who are supposed to save us from economic ruin are caught cheating! These are not people who do the right thing.

Cameron and his associates are not people who share British values like working hard, playing fair, doing the right thing. If their really was a big society it would have crushed them decades ago for defaulting on our shared values. Let's face, all these people are just queue jumpers.

Why is this rank hypocrisy not obvious to everyone? It must in part be because Cameron's side are sincere. They believe their own rhetoric. They were children when Lewis Powell wrote the founding document of the NeoCon religion in 1971, and they're been bought up believing in that world view. They believe that the very position they've attained vindicates their moral superiority. And they have class ideologies reinforcing that as well. If the were insincere the job of defeating them would be easier.

Even when they cut corners or actively break the law they are on the whole not found out; and if they are found out the punishment is out of all proportion. A London rioter who stole a bottle of water got six months in prison. A banker who drove his business into the ground while personally profiting to the tune of 10s of millions of pounds is actually rewarded with salary increases in the order of 40% and bonuses with millions. Barclays rig interest rates and no one is indicted for fraud. A fine of £290 million seems like a lot of money, but to them its not really - just 10 days profit. Plus punishing the corporation rather than individuals means that no one has to take responsibility for the fraud.

So just reflect. A little war is being waged for our attention and for our emotional investment. Cameron is trying to slip beneath the defences of the nation and associate his odious self with 'hard work' and 'doing the right thing'. He speaks out about 'getting something for nothing'. But he does not work hard, he does not do the right thing, and all he's got was for nothing. Cameron is lazy, corrupt, and undeserving.

One final little note that 'the right thing' might be a moral message. But since not winning the election outright Cameron's support from the Tory core voters has been shakey. So this could be aimed back at this own people. He might well be waving his Right Wing politics at these people to get them to trust him as well.

But we need to beware stumbling into the realm of subliminal campaigning and framing. It is a complex field that requires serious study. We need experts to advise us on how to combat Conservative use of these techniques. George Lakoff, one of the founders of cognitive linguistics has been advising progressives in the US and his Huffington Post blog is certainly worth reading. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. At least we can be aware that this sort of thing is going on, and how it works.

At the very least it would be interesting to document these little catch phrases and note how often they are used. And who is using them. If anyone spots any more, please let me know in a comment.


  1. A very interesting analysis. I think many of us have noticed the "hard working families" and "doing the right thing" slogans, one would have to be a bit dense not to (perhaps), and I've seen many a curled lip in response to them. But as you say the effect may well be subliminal, and although I'm cycnical it's spot-on that I do a little funny number in my head like you suggest everyone else does. I'll recommend your blog to the Secular Buddhist UK feasture where a few are casting around to pin down what (Buddhist) political engagement might involve. But congrats on this blog, it deserves a wide readership.

  2. Dear Peter,

    Thanks for being the very first person to comment on this new blog. I think Buddhists are likely to remain irrelevant to the political process in the UK which is why I've abandoned writing for them.


Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.