The best campaign in UK's first 'TikTok Election'

The best campaign in UK's first 'TikTok Election'

3 July 2024

See us in The Drum

Jamie's been in The Drum, along with a handful of other strategic and creative leaders about the UK political parties’ communications campaigns over the last six weeks and the trends they have spotted since rain-drenched Rishi fired the election starting pistol.

This week, the United Kingdom electorate will go to the ballot box to decide who will lead the nation, guide policy, law, order, health and education, as well as who will represent Brits on the global stage as the UK’s 58th prime minister.

While many see this election as a foregone conclusion, neither Rishi, Keir, Ed, Nigel, Carla or John think it is and have all taken different approaches to garnering support from UK voters. Campaign tactics, battle buses, betting scandals, fibs, lies and plenty of spiky TikToks and memes have dominated UK headlines, but which party has run the most effective communications campaign and what trends have come to the fore in 2024?

Jack Maycock, associate strategy director, Shape History: “Dubbed the ‘first TikTok election,’ meme culture has infiltrated Westminster. From the Tories’ tax song featuring Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner ‘dancing’ in the Commons to Dawn Butler’s 21-day rap to Nigel Farage’s Eminem videos, politicians are embracing memes – sometimes successfully, sometimes embarrassingly. Meme culture allows them to connect in a more edgy, humorous and authentic way than traditional, scripted corporate videos. Labour has done well. But winning this battle is Nigel Farage and Reform, dominating digital campaigning with high engagement, especially on TikTok. Farage has amassed over 800,000 followers, compared with Labour’s 200,000 and the Conservatives’ 67,000. However, it’s worth remembering social media isn’t a mirror of Britain’s voting patterns. As David Cameron once said, ‘Twitter isn’t Britain.’ Still, Farage is clearly resonating, especially among younger voters, which surprises many. Will viral views become votes? The ballot box will reveal in a few days...”

Rebecca Brett, senior planner, AMV BBDO: “Labour’s blend of community-first initiatives and TikTok prowess is pioneering new political campaign standards. This is the first UK election in which TikTok has been a mainstream platform, transforming campaign dynamics. Labour has embraced TikTok’s trend-driven, meme-centric nature, engaging voters with a hopeful and humorous tone (Cilla’s surprise surprise being a personal favorite). Their strategy resonates with TikTok’s younger audience and inspiration-hungry algorithm, earning them eight times more likes than the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have ‘flopped’ on TikTok (looking at you, Suella Braverman), sticking to traditional, fear-based messaging across conventional channels, which feels out of touch in an era of ‘fear fatigue’. Labour’s approach has been refreshingly grassroots and community-centric, investing in local candidates, influencers, micro-influencers and celebrities (Gary Neville, Jon Richardson). This bottom-up, audience-first strategy contrasts with the Conservatives’ top-down model, which heavily focuses on Rishi Sunak and party-first messaging, making Labour appear more relatable and in tune with voters’ concerns.”

Sam Hodges, executive director for corporate reputation, The Romans: “In crisis and reputational work, I always tell clients to avoid being defined by either the problem or the competition. Yet here we are, in an election where strategy seems to be exactly the opposite, where any party’s greatest clarion call is pointing out the failings of another. Like a Kansas City Shuffle, we all know it’s a con, but distracted by shiny whataboutery, we spend too much time deciding who to vote for by debating who’s most calamitous rather than interrogating policy. And the worst thing is, it’s all so bloody strategic. Far from Rishi dripping in the rain being an oversight, it was, of course, so very deliberate. Proof he’s a man of the people, decided by those who are anything but. No wonder so many people are politically disengaged.”

Richard Pinder, CEO, The Hunger: “Foregone conclusions lead to lackluster marketing – if this election is anything to go by. Labour talks about Labour and everyone else talks about Labour. So hardly any surprise that voting intentions haven’t been swayed much between the two major parties. Labour’s message is the clearest (Change) but the quality of the comms from all sides clearly shows the crisis of creativity in the UK that was evidenced in Cannes. Almost trying to outdo themselves with dullness. Reform is probably the most interesting in terms of messaging, but only because their leader believes all publicity is good publicity when you are an outsider and a PR pro. Overall, it has been desperately uninteresting, uninspired and disappointing. Not much of an ad for adland. We can surely all do better.”

Barney Worfolk-Smith, chief growth officer, Daivid: “Here at Daivid, we’ve been assessing a lot of the content the five main parties have been posting on YouTube and TikTok over the last few weeks using our advanced content testing platform. In terms of trends, whether it’s demographically right or wrong, TikTok has become a key battleground. There, Labour has employed native trends to amass the largest following and drive the most laughs (23% of viewers from our research). In terms of the outcome that the parties want, though: trust... that has been in short supply. Irrelevant of what’s being said, Lib Dems’ content is the most trusted and Reform the least. The thing that has struck us is the adoption of native tactics on social at a pace that brands have taken years to hone. That being said, we notice that the trust levels of TikTok content across the board are below YouTube, probably down to the pugnacious nature of the political content and the platform, which normally delivers less serious information. One other trend we noticed was that Rishi Sunak is a bit of a turn-off. When looking at the second-by-second emotions of viewers while they watch, negative emotions peak and positive emotions fall when he appears in frame, so maybe the Conservatives should focus more on the issues and less on the personalities.”

Jamie Williams, managing partner, Isobel: “In truth, it has been an election campaign with more own goals than comms wins. The major parties have been busy shooting themselves in the foot rather than landing killer ad message blows on their competition. With such a big, predicted lead, Labour has played it very safe and understandably so. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have felt like a disjointed brand, firing a series of tactical short-term messages Keir Starmer’s way, with little evidence of a solid overall strategy. Policies and rhetoric aside, Nigel Farage and Reform have arguably had the most comms success. Combining Trump-style headline-grabbing tactics and populist rallies with smart TikTok content has proved successful, if the polls are to be believed. Reform’s high engagement levels on social platforms with younger people has been one of the genuine surprises of the election campaign, although recent scandals on the eve of the election may dampen their vote on the July 4.”

Lizi Legge, social activation account director, IMA: “The general election (or genny lec, as it has been referred to by Gen Z) is the first since TikTok has seen a huge uplift in users – including those who have since become of age to vote. It’s interesting to see that Labour embraced the platform early doors by drawing in followers with humor and trends before seeding their manifesto – whereas, while the Conservatives and Lib Dems have been active, it has been a less priority platform, which makes sense given their voter demographic. I think that social media, however, continues to build echo chambers, with algorithms showing people what they’re interested in (and therefore what their views align with), creating a sense of perhaps a bigger pool of voters and ‘people like me.’ This is further amplified by the use of dark advertising across the board, whereby targeted ads can hit their intended users en masse, leaving others completely unaware of that messaging.”

Mike Waters, strategy director, Fold7: “Let’s look at the numbers. According to the BBC’s tracker, just two parties have grown their vote since Rishi fired the starting gun water pistol for this election: the Liberal Democrats and Reform UK. Both campaigns reinforce best practice principles. Reform’s stellar numbers have been driven by a relentlessly single-minded focus on immigration and a key Distinctive Brand Asset – Nigel Farage. Admirably simple. (Or even… simplistic). Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are a great case study for the value of fame and emotion over reach and rationality. Their strategy of seeking attention over comprehension – and injecting some fun into a dour, passionless contest – has struck an inflatable hammer blow against the idea that slapstick doesn’t sell. Rather than hurting his credibility, Davey’s daily stunts have driven his approval rating up 13 points in three weeks, putting him far ahead of Starmer and Sunak. Laughter really is the best medicine.”

Becca Hutson, editorial director, The News Movement: “We’ve certainly seen more money than ever being spent on digital communications during this campaign, whether it’s MailOnline homepage takeovers or hyper-targeted Facebook advertising, as well as the meme warfare across Instagram and TikTok from the major parties. And, while there’s an argument that by interrupting people’s scrolling with political messaging you might prompt some curiosity from a would-be voter, whether 2024 can be called the ‘first digital election’ remains to be seen. When you consider how much more focus has been placed on which party the major newspapers are backing (with all eyes on the Murdoch stable of dailies), it’s clear that despite millions more people consuming political messaging online, our political establishment still looks to traditional media to reach hearts and minds. We could have seen more from all of the parties – digital manifesto launches? Livestream Q+A? AMAs? Daily BTS on from the campaign trail... Instead, we got very pre-prepared clips and TV-quality party political broadcasts. I guess there’s always next time.”

Tony Quinn, chief strategy officer, BBD Perfect Storm: “For the last few weeks, political campaigning by all parties has created an almost dystopian feel to the whole election run-up. From Rishi in his Sambas, Kier styling it out with Taylor Swift, Farage turning up in his 96 England top and Ed arriving with an alpaca on a rope, there’s a feeling of reality TV to these proceedings. Furthered by a scramble across social, where 11-second TikTok ‘takedowns’ seem to be winning political currency, there’s no genuine focus on policy, vision or leadership. Instead, we’ve seen divisions stoke up through increasingly pointless debates, staged mostly for viewing figure bragging rights. For every policy post I read, I get served a contradictory fact check. For every speech, I get a spoof. And as a result, at a time where values like integrity, promise and reliability have never been more important, little substance has landed. Everything needs to ‘Change.’ Now there’s an idea…”

Annie Harte, social strategist, Eight&Four: “Since the rain-soaked reveal of the general election by Rishi Sunak, the political stage has been anything but dry. The rise of TikTok as a tool within political comms is fascinating to watch, mirroring exactly what users crave. The issue is that the content is void of policy. It’s slander and mockery, leaving users with no understanding of manifestos and instead a suite of Conservative jabs. This strategy is unique to date and a sure-fire way to capture the younger demographic. Yet, this ‘brain-rot’ approach to content mimics exactly what Duolingo and Ryanair have been doing for years – it’s only unique in the political sphere. The real question is whether reducing complex political conversions to emojis and trends is actually suitable for serious political discourse – to me, it feels one step too far.”

Richard Exon, co-founder, Joint: “For the romantic-minded, it’s somewhat disappointing that none of the parties competing have created iconic, singular campaign images that have caught headlines in previous contests. From the endless dole queue (1979) to Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket (2015), each execution drove the news agenda. But today, there’s more nuance, with parties directing hyper-targeted messages at increasingly fragmented audiences through email blasts and TikToks. It’s harder to track what each party is up to – but it may well be working, especially for smaller parties. In the last two elections, the Conservative and Labour vote share dropped and the latest polls have them sharing a mere 55% of voting intention. Some of this is due to general disenchantment with mainstream politics. But we can be sure that advances from Reform, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party are in part due to those parties landing more messages, more precisely, with more people.

Nikki Hutchinson, managing director, LarkHill PR: “The general election should be focused on building back trust in UK politics. As with any comms campaign, its success will be measured in outcomes. This time, it won’t just be about who takes office but the percentage of voters who chose to show up at the ballot box on July 4. Unfortunately, we’ve seen lackluster campaigns, weak policy messaging and uninspiring media and social activations. There’s been a heavy focus on the tried and trusted method of the TV debate, the usual round of interviews and showing up at media moments/events that matter (including Keir Starmer tapping into his Swiftie Era). Thankfully, we’ve not been subjected to another £350,000 on the side of a bus, but these campaigns certainly don’t showcase the prowess of the UK comms industry. However, with the level of crisis management the parties’ comms teams have had to deal with, potentially this comes as no surprise.”

Grace Duncan, strategy director, Screenshot Media: “The TikTok pages of both major UK political parties have taken this election as an opportunity to enter a meme battle. Whoever’s running them understands the algorithm and is tapping into current trending tracks to keep content rising to the top of our For You pages. While jumping on trends can drive engagement, it’s disappointing that politicians aren’t seriously engaging with topics their next-gen audiences care about. The last 12 videos on Labour’s TikTok feature countless memes targeted at Rishi but nothing on policies or problems. We’re missing value-driven content that earns ownership of the conversation and next-gen voices to craft and drive the conversation that could’ve allowed political parties to organically align their political targets. Most strikingly for a social strategy is the deficit in interactive activity. Q&As or live streams engage directly with audiences, encouraging real-time dialogue. Young people feel tangibly part of the conversation and involved in the political process.”

Trevor Robinson OBE, founder & executive creative director, Quiet Storm: “The big trend is that parties and politicians are moving beyond traditional media and celebrity endorsements to TikTok and influencers in a bid to engage Gen Z. Labour is outspending all other parties on social, with micro-influencers posting videos that appeal to niche interests, it seeks to cut through to voters with tailored content. Depressingly, Reform is making a bigger impact on social, even though it’s one of the smallest. While micro-targeting to motivate one audience over another is a key tactic, on the flip side, the Tories are trying not to wake the sleeping giant of Labour voters with the message that they already have it in the bag, but if they should bother to vote, why not turn up for another party. It’s not the political content that is getting the engagement; the messaging that cuts through is emotion-based.”

Rik Moore, managing partner strategy, The Kite Factory: “From a paid media perspective, it feels remarkably one-sided. The inescapable trend is the sheer spending power of the Labour party, which has seemingly dwarfed its rivals. What elevates this is the thinking behind it, from smart homepage takeovers on key websites at key moments during the election race to the messages that have been delivered within that spend. That includes the big statements alongside the smaller, more targeted ads. I was served a YouTube pre-roll ad for my local constituency Labour candidate, something I don’t ever recall seeing before in terms of local support and tactics. Given I was served this in a historically safe Conservative seat in Essex, it speaks to an opposition party using digital media in smarter ways.”