The government is now paying Love Island ‘stars’ and other ‘influencers’ to promote their policies. There was a time when I’d have been shocked to hear that. Now, it doesn’t feel odd at all. It’s just the latest instance in a long line of actions by the government which help to develop an increasingly superficial, haphazard, ad hoc air. Three word slogans, empty pronouncements, and primitive policy choices (e.g. refer to anything Gavin Williamson has ever touched) are very much this government’s forte. Doing their PR through Love Islanders seems about right.
In the not-so-distant past (think back to the preparations to leave the EU earlier this year) the government would alert us of particularly important policies by putting an ad in the newspapers or by slapping a photo of some minister in a hard hat on a billboard. Now, it seems that sponsored posts are more their style. These posts tend to cost over £10,000 for the ‘influencer’ to rattle off a bit about how test and trace will soon mean they won’t have to post throwback pictures followed by a couple of hashtags (#letsgetback, #gettested, #nocovidnoproblems etc.).
It cheapens the whole ‘brand’ of government
“So what?” you might ask. It costs tens of thousands to run newspaper adverts too. Instagram posts might even reach more people. What’s the issue here? My issue is not that the government is using social media. In fact, I think they probably ought to get better at doing so (in a Rory Stewart on the campaign trail sort of way, not a Dominic Cummings X Cambridge Analytica sort of way). My problem is with how they’re doing it. Deferring to a bunch of self-proclaimed ‘influencers’ puts the government on the level of a clothing or make-up brand, using these hired mouthpieces to promote their latest products. It cheapens the whole ‘brand’ of government.
I find it hard to believe that people would react in the same way to one of these posts as they would to a more serious form of promotion. Thankfully Boris didn’t reduce his speeches in lockdown to Instagram selfies captioned with #stayathomeexceptwhenyouneedtogotoworkbutdontgotowork. I think the message might have got lost in translation and I’m not sure it would have had quite the same effect. Indeed, the ‘influencers’ themselves don’t even seem to believe what they’re saying, with lots of them clearly breaching government rules in other posts on their Instagram.
How a message is presented affects how it’s taken. Policy messages coming over Instagram might just about be stomach-able when they’re coming from someone remotely connected to that policy, but when they are glibly shoved in the caption of a holiday photo they don’t quite strike the right note. The message might be reaching more people, but there is surely a difference in the quality of that reach.
The message might be reaching more people, but there is surely a difference in the quality of that reach
The whole tone of it is wrong. On the government’s part, it reduces them to new lows. Surely these ‘influencers’ aren’t the sort of people with whom they want to build a close association? Just because someone has a following doesn’t mean they ought to be brought in by the government to promote its policies. Kim Kardashian currently has 188 million followers on Instagram – is she being eyed up for Director of Communications? On the part of the ‘influencers’, if they really cared about helping to deal with coronavirus, could they not use their influence selflessly and recommend test and trace for free?
There does seem to be something almost poetic in this government turning to Love Island for partnership. The government’s style seems to increasingly resemble the programme. It’s not just the hearty supply of superficial characters ready to take centre-stage, or the disconnect with the outside world. The government also seems to be replicating the game show/reality TV style. Ministers offer ‘oven-ready’ slogans to questions and appear to the public via heavily-scripted ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ style videos. Policies are reduced to whatever can fit on the front of a lectern and happens to rhyme. There’s also a growing sense that ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Perhaps the thing we’re really missing is being able to phone in to vote off a cabinet member every week. Oh, and for it all to be narrated by Iain Stirling.