Harnessing the PR power of the Brexit bus
This weekend saw the clocks go forward and if the tweeting birds and warmer weather are anything to go by, spring is definitely in the air. If like me you’ve been waiting to put your jumpers away since approximately October 3rd, this will be extremely welcome!
But sadly for those of us who want to chat new wardrobes and summer holidays, Brexit seems to be the only thing anyone wants to talk about. The topic dominates the news and every conversation from house buying (is the market stagnating?), to grocery shopping (what will happen to food standards?), to summer holidays (do we need a blue passport?).
Whatever your opinion, whether you’re passionately pro-remain or would rather the government just shut up and got on with it, the issue certainly has people talking. But would you consider capitalising on such a divisive news issue to create a buzz for your brand? And would you dare to replicate the biggest PR stunt of the referendum?
Love it or hate it, the Brexit bus remains hugely influential. It generated masses of coverage for the leave campaign and, possibly, swung the referendum result. So it makes sense that some brands have harnessed the power of the bus for their own agenda (a quick Google will also uncover more than a few political copycats). And while there’s nothing new in transport advertising (TfL has been doing it for years) or in referencing topical issues, there is a danger that looking to profit from such a divisive issue could alienate some of the people you’re hoping to attract.
So is it possible to turn all this talk of leaving or staying to your advantage? Let’s look at some brands that have made it work for them.
For a publication like the Economist, whose brand identity is predicated on having a view about politics, this kind of statement makes absolute sense. It recently sent an ad van circling the Houses of Parliament with the slogan, “tired of going round in circles?” to highlight the magazine’s editorial stance in a stunt that’s likely to have resonated with its readers in both the leave and stay camps. The Economist is expected to be vocal about the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations, so an ad that positions the publication as the ‘go to’ voice on the issue works.
In a similar stunt, Channel 4’s take on the infamous Brexit bus featured the slogan, “taking back the remote control,” in an ad to promote its new drama on the 2016 referendum. Again, for a TV drama on the subject, the language and imagery of the referendum campaign hit the mark. But how does this tactic land when the Brexit link is less clear?
Way back in 2017 Fintech startup Monese echoed the now discredited £350 saving slogan to promote its fee free money sending banking offer. Where was the ad placed? You guessed it, on the side of a bus. And in a more controversial take on the theme, Paddy Power’s use of humour in its tongue in cheek Six Nations campaign shows that they too can use Brexit as a successful PR tool (no busses this time, though). The betting giant poked fun with a Six Nations ad that made light of the Irish backstop issue, the predicted surge in British applications for Irish passports and generally capitalised on Brexit banter. With ad placement in Dublin and the Irish backstop being such an important issue in negotiations, the campaign was certainly risky (and was criticised by some). But others saw the value in taking a comical approach to cut through a serious issue. The Monese stunt was also widely lauded for injecting a difficult topic with humour. Laughter brings us closer, right?
So could ‘that bus’ work for you?
While referencing current affairs in PR is nothing new, it’s natural to be concerned that echoing a stunt from such a divisive campaign could backfire. And while some take the view that times are changing and customers are increasingly keen to see brands nail their colours to the mast, many more take the traditional view is that it’s wise to steer clear of politics. On the other hand, if you’re confident in your delivery and it works for your offering, it could make sense to get involved in the dominant conversation of the day, even if it divides opinion.
Whatever your view, one thing’s for certain: the Brexit bus has left a PR legacy.