How to sell Britain a single currency

If the government is to win the promised vote on EMU, it must avoid the marketing mistakes made by its continental counterparts
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The Independent Online
#CONTRARY to popular belief, selling a political message is not like selling a soap powder. And selling a European political message is trickier still. Which is why the British Government must avoid pitfalls encountered by others in Europe if it is to hold a successful referendum on European monetary union.

Despite its promise earlier this month not to enter a single currency in the next parliament without a national vote, the Government cannot wait too long before laying the groundwork. Countries wishing to join must signal their interest early in 1998. But successful campaigns depend on solid preparation and long lead times, a report by advertising agency Grey International warns.

The report, Shaping Attitudes Towards the European Union, examines the strategies and effectiveness of other European governments' referendum campaigns and sets out a blueprint for effective campaigning. This includes careful preparation, early co-operation with industry and businesses to pool communications, and an avoidance of traditional mass-market advertising techniques.

One of the major obstacles will be overcoming public inertia. "The European Union is a business-driven concept," Grey International president John Shannon says. "It has overlooked the need to communicate its importance to the people."

One reason for this, he says, has been cumbersome Euro-bureaucracy: "People with political backgrounds often feel it is unseemly to be seen to use marketing professionals." This has resulted in an often ill- informed, emotionally charged response to the issue. A Gallup poll conducted last Decemberfound that 60 per cent of the UK population would vote against a European single currency, but 69 per cent admitted they did not know enough about it. Forty-six per cent had heard more about the arguments against a single currency; only 18 per cent were aware of the arguments for.

European experience over half a century proves all too clearly that the results of referendums are rarely a foregone conclusion, the report finds. Referendums conducted so far have shown opinion in most European countries split in roughly equal measure: Sweden and Finland both voted in favour of membership of the EU, but the vote was very close. Norway was split, with anti-Unionists just winning. In Denmark, the 1992 vote on whether or not to accept the Maastricht Treaty resulted in a "no"; a second vote a "yes". Each could have gone either way.

There are a number of reasons for this, Grey claims. Mass-market, above- the-line advertising has been widely used, but this has not enabled clear and accurate explanation of complex issues. It also fails to address individuals according to their age, gender and education levels - important factors affecting attitudes to integration. In Norway's 1993 referendum on EU membership, the young were more likely to oppose it than their parents; private-sector workers were more likely to say "yes" than those in the public sector.

Too often, industry bodies and businesses sharing common goals ran rival campaigns that served only to confuse the consumer, the report adds. Government and industry must pool resources to fight a centrally co-ordinated, multi- disciplined campaign. And it must strike these allegiances early. Leaving campaign planning to just a couple of months before the vote is too late. Entrenched positions take steady communication to win over. France's 1992 Maastricht referendum saw a narrow win for the "yes" vote. Although the campaign was large and well- organised, it began in July: too late for a September vote.

Contrary to recent UK campaigns, government should avoid treating people as consumers: they are voters, and require more than straightforward selling techniques. Each national referendum in the survey was characterised by heavyweight advertising campaigns designed to influence the vote. "Almost all were fragmented, short-term and lacking in professionalism," Mr Shannon observes. "There is little evidence to suggest that they played an important part in final voting decisions."

The exception was Austria, he adds. The Austrian referendum on European membership in 1993 resulted in an overwhelming "yes" vote after a PR campaign which ran for years rather than weeks; a pre-vote advertising campaign which was meticulously planned; and voters who were targeted individually with a personalised direct-mail information pack advertising a telephone hotline number. Government joined forces early with industrial organisations, and 73 per cent of voters recalled seeing a campaign poster - 18 per cent higher than for Benetton, according to a Gallup poll.

"The common thing in each market was that opinion was polarised and there was a need to communicate with the middle ground, which most failed to address," Mr Shannon observes. Also, there were many interested parties - from single companies to the fishing and farming lobby - all eager to put their case. "A clutter of conflicting messages is inevitable," Mr Shannon concedes, "but it can be minimised by early coalition-building. Only in this way are focused, cost-effective campaigns achieved."