What next after DWP's Valentine's Tweet - a Christmas campaign asking how you can afford presents on benefits?

When I saw the DWP Valentine's Day tweet last week, I felt sick. The tweet, an ill-advised, cynical ad, appropriating 14 February, was designed to draw attention to benefit claimants failing to declare living with a partner on Valentine's Day.

DWP's Valentine's tweet was ill-advised, cynical and bad comms, argues Quentin Holden
DWP's Valentine's tweet was ill-advised, cynical and bad comms, argues Quentin Holden

In reality it offered a pernicious, wilful statement of intent: "Yes, even on Valentine’s Day, we are watching you."

As a piece of communications work, it was a scripted, facetious, animation, featuring a love-heart shaped hot-air balloon, floating above fluffy clouds, bringing amorous claimants swiftly down to earth with the bleak reminder that claimants could be separated from loved ones on Valentine’s Day through fraud charges, criminal records and jail time.

The DWP’s Communications Team has genuinely broken new ground here. Surely the appropriation of a day celebrating love can only progress to other national and even religious holidays.

Why not a Christmas campaign: "How could you afford those presents, when you’re clearly on benefits?"

Will the HMRC run equivalent ads – "Are you sure you’re taking your wife to the Cayman Islands only for love?" – or would that be contrary to the narrative that it’s only the poor that scam the government?

The DWP’s world is gloriously black and white.

You are either living alone claiming single allowance benefits (usually at a higher rate), or you’re duplicitously living with someone, undeclared, stealing from the state.

Life and relationships are a bit more complicated than that, offering near infinite permutations of grey, where people do stay at people’s houses without having sex; where thousands stay with partners at weekends, terrified that an extra night might constitute fraud; and where relationships don’t start or end cleanly, on easy to remember, declarable dates.

A simple Google search reveals literally hundreds of benefits claimants in chat rooms, concerned with their own complex, ongoing changes.

They’re worrying how they’ve split up with a partner, but neither party can move out through lack of money; where former partners have temporarily moved back in for similar reasons, or they’re struggling to interpret the finer legal points of LTAHW (Living Together as Husband and Wife) definitions of civil partnerships.

As a former comms manager/director in both the NHS and the Department of Health, I worked with both the COI (Central Office of Information) and Downing Street Press office, both of whom could have been consulted prior to releasing the tweet.

Following years of suffering chronic illness and claiming ESA benefits, I am now on the receiving end of such mini-campaigns.

The bulk of such claimants, many in far worse circumstances than my own, would be quick to ask the DWP’s comms team if they truly believe mini-campaigns like this will result in the real thieves and scammers putting their hands up and saying "It’s a fair cop."

On the other hand, they might just say it simply adds to a daily, insidious intimidation of those trying genuinely to claim fairly, while negotiating the everyday tightrope of poverty and disability – and sometimes, god forbid, even love.

Quentin Holden is a former asst. director of marketing & comms for the NHS & comms manager at the Department of Health

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