The Couch Surfer: 'If political parties insist on invading pop culture, they won't re-engage anybody'

Tim Walker: ‘If we elect the Tories, it won’t be because we’re impressed by Eric Pickles on Spotify’
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The Independent Culture

There's always something a trifle silly about a political party trying to attract young voters. What I really mean is, there's always something a trifle silly about the Conservatives trying to attract young voters.

The whole "Cool Britannia" thing worked for New Labour because most hip young gunslingers lean left. But people don't vote Tory to be cool; they vote Tory to cut taxes and stuff. (And then, if the voter in question thinks of themselves as at all cool, or indeed cares in the least about coolness, they lie and claim to have voted for the Lib Dems, who aren't really much cooler than the Tories – except for Vince Cable, who is cool, but only by dint of not trying to be cool.)

Nobody's going to swing right just because David Cameron likes The Smiths, or because William Hague wears a baseball cap to an amusement park. In fact, both examples demonstrate such a crushing lack of self-awareness that they're perfectly good reasons to vote for someone else. So when my friends started gnashing their teeth about the Conservatives' latest ploy – an advertising campaign on Spotify – I chuckled at the idea of Cameron quoting Morrissey ("Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want", perhaps) for the listening pleasure of potential young neo-Thatcherites.

I've switched to the ad-free "premium" version of the music streaming service, so I'm not being subjected to this party political webcast every seven or eight minutes, but I sought it out to have a listen anyway. Finding a cool Conservative would be a thankless task at the best of times, but Eric Pickles, the party chairman, must be among the least cool of the lot. Yet Pickles it is who delivers the 45-second spot: about Gordon Brown's "reckless spending", the growing national debt, and how the Tories can save us all from disaster – probably by cutting taxes or something. "I hope this ad will reach and engage with people who normally aren't interested in politics," Pickles optimistically told one journalist. "It's vital we re-energise and re-engage people." Perhaps he was chosen to record it because he's already a popular radio host; he and Brandon Lewis of Brentwood Council present The Eric and Brandon Show on Phoenix FM, a local radio station. But I suspect the Tory PR team just weren't trying very hard. Maybe they had more important things to do.

Political promotion was a little more difficult before the internet; aside from their allotted broadcast slots in the three minutes between Neighbours and the news, the parties are prevented by law from advertising on television or radio. As usual, legislation for the web lags behind its users, so parties can still legitimately trash-talk each other online. But if the Tories (or the Lib Dems, or Labour) insist on invading our popular culture in the run-up to the election, I'm fairly sure they're not going to re-engage or re-energise anybody. Judging by my friends' reactions to the ad, they're just going to wind them up.

After all, we're no longer the hopeful mugs we might have been in 1997, when Tony could melt our super-cool hearts with a strum of his electric guitar and a nod in Noel Gallagher's general direction. Nowadays we can smell Westminster spin from Weston-Super-Mare. And if we do elect a Tory government, it's not likely to be because we're impressed by Eric Pickles invading our playlists – or, for that matter, by Boris Johnson interrupting a perfectly good episode of Eastenders to order a pint from Peggy Mitchell.

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Pickles' commercial break does at least present itself as such. Viral ads aren't always so forthcoming. One of the year's biggest web hits is "Megawhoosh", footage of a loopy German launching himself across a valley, from a giant waterslide into a paddling pool. The clip was clearly fake, but only a day or two after it went viral did the Microsoft logo appear on the Megawhoosh website. Likewise, a "mattress dominoes world record" clip took 58 seconds to announce itself as an ad for a bedmaker, and the recent YouTube experiments by TheFunTheory.com are really Volkswagen commercials. They're all fabulous clips and a credit to their creators, but it does mean that when, last week, I found myself watching a charmingly silly viral of four bored office workers lip-synching to the Backstreet Boys (I have a lot of time on my hands), the spontaneous joy of it – that 30-second thrill that encourages virality in the first place – was tempered with suspicion. Which tech company, I wondered, is trying to sell me a laptop?

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