Let’s be realistic! I realise that opening an article with an exhortation to be realistic is likely to deter Alba fantasists and SNP loyalists alike. But how many of them would be reading my blog anyway? Realism is no more welcomed in the constitutional debate than scrutiny and criticism. Those who examine, analyse and comment on the state of Scotland’s dispassionately tend to make themselves unpopular with the larger part of the Yes movement in the process. So I long since grew accustomed to the irritating attentions of the defensively delusional. Pandering to those unwilling to face reality is no part of my role in the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. Small as that role may be, it is not further constrained by any effort to avoid giving offence to those who when offered the choice between disputing my perspective and demanding that I wheesht, invariably opt for the latter. The appropriate hashtag here is #fckm.
Let’s be realistic about the leaflet published as an insert in The National today with the aim of delivery to a million homes in Scotland and the hope of persuading a number of the merits of restoring Scotland’s independence. I’ve just skimmed through my copy. There’s nothing new. Certainly nothing that might be a game-changer for Scotland’s cause. If I hadn’t been told it was a special publication then I might well have taken it for the usual content of Scotland’s only pro-independence newspaper. Even the front cover picture of Nicola Sturgeon wearing the planet as a halo (Or is it a hat?) is a well-worn trope. Being realistic, how much impact is this likely to have?
Before going any further I have to make it clear that I am not opposed to exercises such as this. Given the dominance of the British (Nationalist) media, any effort to counter their malign influence has to be welcome. As a means of getting the message out there this mass distribution might work. It’s not the mass distribution that’s the problem, it’s the message. If this is a practice run for something more then it is worthwhile. But I have to doubt that this is the case. When was there any follow-up to this kind of ‘initiative’? Even when an action succeeds in giving a bit of impetus to Scotland’s cause, when has that impetus not been squandered? When have we ever seen evidence of even the most basic strategic thinking such as looks beyond the ‘initiative’ and asks ‘what next’?
Let’s first of all be realistic about the numbers. A million copies to a million household sounds huge. But what is the reality? According to Scottish Government statistics based on census data the average household in Scotland is 2.14 persons (2020 figure). Let’s suppose the distribution effort comes close enough to its target that the leaflet is delivered to 2 million individuals. Or to put it more correctly, 2 million people will have direct access to the leaflet as a result of this distribution drive. An unknown and probably unknowable number of people will get second-hand access through copies left on the bus or in the pub etc. Let’s take our starting point as 3 million potential readers. We can afford to overestimate.
How many will actually read the publication or any part of it? Research by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) indicates a response rate of only 1%. 89% say they remember receiving or seeing the leaflet. 45% actually hold on to it perhaps to read later. But the actual response rate is only 1%. Only one in a hundred has any impact.
Some will argue that this is not a marketing exercise. But that’s precisely what it is. It’s not selling a product or service. It’s selling the idea of Scotland being independent. All political campaigns are essentially marketing campaigns. But let’s assume that the method of distribution or other factors such as the design of the publication, makes this campaign more successful than is usual. Let’s allow it to be five times better than the average. Let’s proceed on the basis of the leaflet being read – in whole or part – by 5% of the people afforded access to it by the distribution effort. That million households now equates to 125,000 individuals. And that is being very, very generous. Bear in mind that going by the statistics this figure would be a mere 25,000, some would say we’re being ludicrously generous.
125,000 individuals read some or all of the leaflet. By far the largest part of that number will read only bits and pieces. So what effect, if any, might we expect? This is where it gets a bit tricky. There’s quite a lot of subjective assessment involved from here. It seems reasonable, however, to suppose that the vast majority of those reading the leaflet will already be Yes voters. By which I mean people who have already bought what the leaflet is selling. Given that it is a binary issue, it’s irrelevant whether the leaflet makes them buy more of the idea. So when estimating the effectiveness of the leaflet we have to discount all those who are not part of the target market. We have to put a number on that. The polls put the Yes/No split at around 50%. If we therefore assume that half those who read the leaflet are No voters we are almost certainly continuing to be very generous.
The million is now 62,500.
Here’s where it gets seriously controversial. How many of that number are even potential Yes voters? As earlier noted, there is nothing new in the leaflet. The message is basically the same as it has been for the entire seven years plus since the first referendum. If we take the success rate of that message as measured by polling as our guide then we have to be extraordinarily generous just to keep the number above zero. There is no polling evidence of the message having any impact at all. Being realistic ;by the numbers’ we’d have to write off all of that remaining 62,500. But let’s maintain our tradition of generosity even at some cost to realistic assessment. Although it was way back in August 2015, the highest point reached by Yes in a single poll since the first referendum was 53% – 8 points more than in the 2014 vote. Let’s make the extremely bold assumption that this is telling us that 15% of No voters can be moved to Yes then that 1,000,000 headline figure comes down to 9300 individuals.
Take the generosity out of that estimate and we’re left with probably fewer than 1,000 conversions. Even 9300 is only about 0.2% of the electorate. Not a spectacular outcome for all that effort.
How might it be better? Realistically speaking the only things that can be changed are the message and the method of delivery. Not many methods of delivery available to the Yes campaign can reach 62,500 No voters. So that leaves the message. We have yet to see what impact if any, the leaflet has on polls. We also have the problem of separating out the leaflet effect from other factors. We know, for example, that previous bumps for Yes have been associated with Nicola Sturgeon’s personal popularity. Her early handling of the Covid crisis, for example. There will surely be a boost for Yes following the First Minister’s prominence during COP26. Only a cynic would suggest that there is any connection between this and the timing of the leaflet distribution. But we can be sure that any bump in polls in the next week or two will largely be attributed to the leaflet regardless of other factors. We should be sceptical of such claims.
How might the message have been more effective? The message is effective to the extent that it creates a buzz. It’s the buzz that extends the message beyond the immediate audience and beyond the moment. Will people be talking about in two weeks time? Or a month? Will people be talking about it who otherwise wouldn’t be talking about it? Does it change the debate in any way? Does it create new material and potential for the Yes campaign?
To generate this kind of buzz the message must be novel and controversial and bold. The material in The National’s leaflet is none of these. It’s the same old stuff that will be talked about be the same people. There’s nothing there to spark a fresh conversation, far less anything to ignite interest or trigger excitement. Huge effort. Negligible impact.
I will doubtless get the usual stuff about being ‘negative’. Of course I’m being negative! One can’t look realistically at Nicola Sturgeon’s record on the constitutional issue without being negative. So long as her approach to the constitutional issue is maintained it will remain impossible to look realistically at the prospects for Scotland’s cause without being negative. To those who accuse me of being negative I extend an invitation to try addressing the reasons for my negativity rather than merely the fact of it.
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