Dave, Boris and the power of mind pictures

The EU referendum will be a battle between competing 'mind pictures'. Prime Minister David Cameron has already said that leaving the EU would be a leap into the dark and a big gamble, and has begged the voters not to pull up the drawbridge, float off into the mid-Atlantic and retreat from the world.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has countered with the need to regain control of our borders from the Nanny in Brussels, and likens EU law to a ratchet, clicking only forwards, akin to legal colonisation, leaving our own politicians impotent.

Why do politicians paint such pictures? Because they work. 

They can swing a closely fought campaign, just as they did last year’s general election.
 
Then, Cameron's most effective metaphor was a plea not to hand the keys back to the people who crashed the car in the first place, and he castigated Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining.  

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon then planted in our minds the idea that Ed Miliband had stabbed his brother in the back. 

Ruthless? Yes. Effective? Very.

Labour lost, at least in part, because it failed to counter with such visceral images of its own. However, a generation ago it won this battle of images with its devastatingly effective "For the many not the few", and John Major’s government never escaped Tony Blair’s merciless reminders of Tory sleaze. 

Even the royals got in on the act in the 90s, with Princess Diana telling the nation: "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was quite crowded." 

Images offer visual shorthand, and they act like dynamite. My earliest memory of elections is Margaret Thatcher’s first victory in 1979. 

The defining soundbite that year was "Labour isn’t working", but what brought it to life was the poster of hundreds of people snaking into the distance in a seemingly never-ending dole queue.  

A party political broadcast of the time left an even stronger impression on me: a track race between western countries, with two British runners slowed to a crawl by black weights hung around their necks bearing the word ‘inflation’. 

Once free of the weights, they raced ahead of the field. I remember it as if it were yesterday. That’s what good mind pictures do: they stick. 
In fact, mind pictures are so effective that leaders can be brought to their knees even by ones they create themselves. 

Richard Nixon unwisely told America "I am not a crook" – yet "crook" is such a repellent word that he has, ironically, been associated with it ever since. "I am honest" might have been better, even if events disproved it.

And Thatcher was castigated for warning that Britain could be swamped by immigrants.

Recently, the best mind pictures have been negative, not positive – they negatively portray an opposing campaign. That’s also true of this referendum campaign. 

But imagine if one side could paint a positive picture too? It could make all the difference between a leap into the dark and a stride into the light.

Robert Taylor is a media and comms trainer and author

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