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Emotion, Metaphor and Brexit

"Avoid politics and religion" is normally good advice when talking to clients or colleagues, but in the fall-out from the EU referendum, I feel impelled to break that rule. Yet, despite a rash of resignations and 3 ongoing leadership contests, it's not the political effect that most interests me; it's actually the impact on our culture and values. Why? Because, ultimately, politics will settle down to some kind of equilibrium, while a shift in the way we see ourselves (and the rest of the world sees us) will have a lasting effect on the way we communicate (the 'discourse', if you like) about race, gender, family, country and, yes, brands.

I've spent a lot of time writing about the importance of emotion in both marketing and political campaigning, and one obvious conclusion about the Brexit victory is that, once again, emotion came up trumps. Much has been made of the (emotional) negativity of Remain's 'Project Fear' strategy but less of the emotional appeal of the Leave campaign - built largely around Nigel Farage's rallying cry, "We want our country back".

Here's Linda Colley, Professor of Politics at Princeton:

"The vote confirmed something else: a sense of bereftness that is disproportionately (though not uniquely) felt in England. Lots of people in that country seem to have opted for Brexit out of a near mystical sense that it would somehow give them their country back. This did not simply stem from worries over immigration."

At Conquest we spend a lot of time thinking about the incredible power of metaphor in communication of all kinds - brands, advertising and, of course, politics. Their purpose is often to communicate a feeling or emotion that cannot be literally described. The two underlying metaphors contained in "We want our country back" are theft and loss. It appeals to an almost atavistic belief in the values of a mythical 'lost' Britain: perhaps the one that existed before multi-culturalism; before political correctness; before equality legislation; before immigration; before the EU.

Such ideas (of theft and loss) resonate most with those who often (genuinely) feel that their country has somehow been 'stolen' from them and that the values they hold dear have been traduced and trashed by a liberal intelligentsia, working out of Islington or Brussels. This sentiment also chimes with the view (often expressed during the campaign) that the 'elites' (whoever they may be) have lost touch with 'real people', who have been left behind (another metaphor) - stranded in a wasteland of economic uncertainty and political alienation.

While there's some truth in this, a poll conducted in Thurrock, Essex, found that the strongest level of support for Brexit was not in poorer areas, but in prosperous towns like Billericay, with high levels of home ownership, almost no unemployment and...very few immigrants (Thurrock as a whole is 91% white). When asked to explain their positon, Leave voters talked of "not being able to fly our own flag in our own country" and "our Queen being overruled by Brussels, which is wrong".

This is not to demonise the good people of Thurrock (I'm no Emily Thornberry) but rather to recognise what the Leave campaign did. We know from our own work how powerful metaphors can be and the Leave campaign demonstrated once again that extraordinary power, when they mobilised metaphors so potent that they side-stepped rational debate and spoke directly to raw human emotion. Leave tapped into a deep (metaphorical) well of theft and loss linked to powerful emotions of fear and anger - even amongst those who were neither unemployed, poor, nor living in areas of high immigration. This suggests a cultural as much as an economic divide in the UK that may well prove very hard to bridge.

Remember: victims of theft generally want more than the return of their property; they want revenge!

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