Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

A game of chicken with the electorate

And the Remain campaign should have stopped Project Fear from turning into Project Threat

I have worked in advertising for 28 years. In that time I have seen many briefs for communication campaigns, but none contained the line ‘It is important to insult the target audience, or at least treat them with barely disguised disdain.’

So I wonder whether the referendum result might have gone the other way had Remain supporters refrained from using social media in the days before the vote. Impossible to enforce, of course. The problem with the self-righteous is that they are so eager to virtue-signal to each other that they will go on doing it even when it is completely counterproductive. One American expert has written a blog post entitled ‘Liberals, Want Trump to Win? Keep Calling Him Racist.’

Progressive people are always more inclined to disparage conservatives than vice versa. One explanation, as Jonathan Haidt explains, is that the moral intuition of conservatives is, perhaps surprisingly, more complex than that of liberals. Hence conservatives often see liberals as benign but naive; liberals, however, who find many conservative concerns incomprehensible, think conservatives are evil or mad. Fair enough. But suggesting that anyone who disagrees with you must be either racist or uneducated is never an effective way to change someone’s mind. ‘You are an arsehole and here’s why’ is possibly the least persuasive sentence there is.

Faced with such abuse, most normal people say nothing. This makes the problem worse, because the remaining people who do speak up usually are extremists. It’s the same selection bias you get with demonstrations: normal conservatives don’t go on marches (the only use we have found for handheld placards is to advertise golf sales), so when TV crews do report a rare right-wing demonstration it is disproportionately formed of the kind of people who name their children after Norse gods or own a suspiciously large collection of decommissioned military vehicles.

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