Fixing the ImpossiBle
24/7 (202) 973-1300   

The Beast of Brexit: The Power — and Danger — of Emotional Messaging

There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.

L. Mencken, 1920

Remember the scene in Jaws when the beachgoers stare, eyes disbelieving, mouths agape, at the pandemonium caused by the shark?

Well, that pretty much sums up the transatlantic reaction to the abrupt and potentially catastrophic decision by British voters to leave the European Union— and not just at 10 Downing Street and the White House, but at investment banks, economic policy foundations, think tanks, corporate suites, media headquarters, et al. Everyone is trying to make sense of what appears to be a profound rejection of global economic integration, “establishment” institutions, “elite” opinion, and the status quo. Whatever you may think of him and his policies, British Prime Minister David Cameron certainly deserved a more dignified departure than being devoured by the beast of Brexit.

Strip away all the macroeconomic and geo-strategic back and forth and the debate over Brexit came down to this: the seductive power and danger of visceral messaging. It’s not exactly a revelation in our digital media and myth-driven age that emotion—if you’ll forgive the verb— trumps fact.

Early on in the debate, the “Leave” forces, abetted by an unsuspecting media, seized the upper hand. First, they took an enormously complex issue and caricatured it, reducing it to a harmless-sounding phrase. “Brexit” sounds like something you sprinkle on your oatmeal, not a painful split that will profoundly disrupt, if not sever, the UK’s economic ties to the world. Once “Brexit” became the all-purpose euphemism to describe the referendum, the “Leave” forces were halfway home.

Consider this: What if the shorthand phrase had been “DivorceEU?” Think the outcome would have been the same?

The opposition’s other Machiavellian move was to make “Leave” the vessel through which embittered voters could express their frustrations on any and all issues. As my colleague James Hunt, the head of the London-Brussels communications firm Aspect Consulting, told me a few hours after the polls closed: “Britain made its decision based on lies, misunderstandings, and misconceptions. The “Leave” campaign made no effort to tell the truth, or to contextualize; or at least, not when anyone was listening.

“Instead it was all about Britons “taking back control,” and therefore being able to unilaterally stop immigration (which we can’t and won’t), prevent a European army (which wasn’t on the table), and stop sending 350bn GBP a week to Brussels (which is a gross exaggeration; it’s about one-third that amount). The “Leave” campaign knew that most working class voters understood very little about the nature of Britain’s membership in the EU. Although it’s being presented as an elite vs. anti-elite battle, the reality is that a certain section of the elite knowingly spread falsehoods, leading voters to an outcome that many of them now regret.”

The “Remain” forces figured out too late that lofty arguments about reciprocal trade fall flat when the other side is telling voters that the European Union is the bogeyman behind all their ills. Upset that jobs have left your community? Vote Brexit. Concerned about immigrants taking over? Vote Brexit. Want stronger national health care? Vote Brexit.

One of the many ironies of the debate was Google’s revelation that British-based searches for the “EU” or “What will happen if Britain leaves the EU?” went astronomically up after the polls closed. Brits may not have understood what they were voting against but, by golly, they were voting against it! My friend James Hunt isn’t the only Brit who believes that voters are already suffering from buyer’s remorse. Alas, they don’t get a do-over.

From day one, “Remain” should have waged a campaign rooted in emotion, extolling in understandable terms and images the everyday benefits of Britain’s membership in the EU. And on the flip side, they should have painted in dramatic colors the consequences of a “Leave” vote. Not citing white papers from the London School of Economics or the views of this professor or that but tapping working people to talk in simple language about the dangers inherent in divorcing Britain from the EU.

Prime Minister Cameron and the British establishment allowed extremists to define this vote. They didn’t fight fire with fire. They fought fire with salt and very quickly lost control of a conflagration that, left unchecked, threatens to engulf the global economy.

What lessons can be drawn from this debacle? First and foremost, never underestimate the power of emotion in public discourse. In troubled times, especially when “elites” make a convenient foil, voters will seize on the visceral, ignoring facts and logic.

Norwegian-born business communications strategist Rolf Olsen, the CEO of Swiss-based Leidar, observes, “It will be extremely important for the EU leadership to listen and find ways to engage people in Europe in their affairs. One way could be to let people participate in the election of the President. EU leadership failed to unite behind a strong narrative and should feel deeply responsible for Brexit. Hopefully this vote will inspire some positive change in Brussels.”

What H.L. Mencken feared most was democracy run amok, the dire repercussions of ignorance controlling the ballot box. Remember what happened after the beachgoers in Jaws got over their initial shock? They started running away from the water willy-nilly.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail in the wake of Brexit. The leaders of the industrialized world need to step up and assuage fears.

Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the Brexit vote—speculating about how a shattered British pound might fatten the coffers of his Scottish golf resort—is not likely to be seen as statesmanship in action. But The Donald doesn’t care. Soon enough, he will figure out how to politically exploit— in shameless, emotional terms worthy of the back page of a British tabloid—the meaning of Britain’s defiance.

Secretary Clinton: forewarned is forearmed.

More Posts