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Most major political campaigns in the United States spend massive sums of money on their television ad campaigns. Presidential efforts have the luxury of creating dozens of spots for a litany of battleground states, and many of those ads have millions of dollars behind them.

In Northern Ireland, where my firm is based, paid TV political advertising is illegal. Instead, parties are allocated a small number of broadcast slots on terrestrial TV networks of about five minute at no charge, during which time they can air a Party Election Broadcast (PEB).

This means you can’t saturate your audience. If people aren’t watching when the PEB airs, you can’t just hit them with it again in the next ad break. In short, you have limited reach and limited inventory on TV. Given this restriction, the strategic planning and the crafting of the message takes on added importance.

So how to best approach crafting a persuasive TV campaign in such an environment? Our recent work for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland makes for a good case study. We conceptualized and produced the PEB “Step Forward 2015.”

To explain the success of the “Step Forward 2015” campaign we have to go back to the beginning of our partnership with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland; where it came from and where it is now.

During 2010’s local elections we were approached late in the game by the Alliance Party with the specific task of increasing an awareness of Naomi Long’s policies with the voters of East Belfast. Her rival Peter Robinson, had held the East Belfast seat for the past 31 years and was well known and established in the community. Our task was to grab the public’s attention, increase policy understanding and raise Naomi’s support ahead of the vote.

Time was short. We determined that the most effective route to achieve our goals was through a direct marketing (DM) piece distributed in the campaign area. With little time, available it needed to stand out above the countless takeaway leaflets. To convey that this was a call to the people of East Belfast and to maximise time, we used an illustrative hand drawn style, replicating a hand-written letter in Naomi’s handwriting.

In that election Peter Robinson lost his seat to Naomi Long for the first time in 31 years. The impact of this speaks for itself – after 31 years DUP’s leader had lost their seat in East Belfast.

From this momentous occasion, we began a journey with Alliance not to change their logo but to give them a new brand. We had to replicate what we achieved in East Belfast across Northern Ireland, turning apathy into empathy.

The challenge was how you change the perceptions of a country that is not only reluctant and resistant to change, but doesn’t believe it is possible.

Our result in 2010 proved that not only could we get the Northern Irish public to understand Alliance’s policies but we could move them to stand behind them in the voting booth. Through a series of in-depth interviews, we began to uncover the story behind Northern Ireland’s original cross community party. A group who were thought of as bland, middle class, socially exclusive, and unambitious.

Yet for 30 years had been championing new beginnings; the first to propose integrated education and to suggest power sharing as a plausible solution. Not wishy washy or complacent politicians – they were visionary, edgy, single minded and pioneering. Identifying these truths allowed us to create the organising principle: Leading Change.

This core truth shaped the Party Election Broadcast and all of the fallout campaign collateral. Off the success of Naomi’s election, we employed a mixed illustrated and animated style throughout the campaign. It was the perfect medium for storytelling.

Illustration worked for two reasons: differentiation and flexibility. It allowed our print to stand out from the pack through its bright and colourful style. Conveying the differentiation of the party’s values in a clear and succinct manner that was easy for people of all ages to understand and recall.

Versatile illustration can be produced faster than a live action production and with a wide variety of styles it is adaptable to fit any budget. Illustrating the PEB ensured longevity through integration of the illustrated assets into the other campaign elements, making it highly effective as a long term extended multi-platform campaign.

Northern Ireland has a history of its political landscape becoming very tribal. Political parties often fall into the trap of centring their marketing/promotional material around tribal attitudes. Yet people vote for a view, by alienating areas of the population through tribal beliefs many parties miss key opportunities.

Alliance talks to everybody; an attitude cemented in their party name and their clear policies that stand out by themselves. We decided to fuse them into our campaign copy, creating their story for Northern Ireland. They were transformed, clearly showing the greater party vision: Alliance is “stepping forward” into the future.

We were aware of the potential danger that comes with illustration. It’s often viewed as juvenile or seen to not fully represent the serious nature of its content. To combat this, we used recognisable Alliance politician Naomi Long’s voice for all TV animations and radio communications. This helped to ground the campaign geographically and to create a personal and direct connection between the party and the public.

The result was a persuasive narrative that was successful in achieving party goals. Alliance achieved the best results at the local council level in over 30 years with a 47% increase on council seats from the previous elections in 2007. In 2011 Alliance recorded its best ever assembly election results in the party history; 8 MLA’s and 2 ministerial posts. (Northern Ireland’s governing assembly is composed of 108 members known as MLA’s elected from 18 six-member constituencies and 9 ministerial posts).

Traditionally the majority of these seats are held by the two primary parties (DUP and Sein Fein) with the remainder split between secondary unionist and nationalist parties (UUP and SDLP). As a minority party, Alliance achieving this representation shows a significant shift in the Northern Irish political landscape.

To summarise, our campaign was successful thanks to a combination of three things:

  1. A clear understanding of our client, their brand view and positioning, and the environment they operated in.
  2. Cleverly incorporating a disruptive and disarming illustrative style to our clients’ brand view.
  3. Incorporating prominent party member’s voices and handwriting that drew the creative closer to the target audience.

Jaime Steele is the managing director at Pale Blue Dot Creative, a Belfast-based strategic consulting firm.