Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory confirms, in case there was any doubt, that populist politics go hand-in-hand with populist messaging. The Conservatives kept their message simple, emotive and repetitive and barely let the focus slip from the personality of their leader.
But straightforward does not mean simplistic. The Conservative campaign revealed that its understanding of contemporary media extended beyond political messaging and included an awareness of a much broader landscape of cultural references. In particular, the power that comes from using some of the most emotive associations of popular culture.
This is exemplified in the video advert which, for all its apparent frivolity and jostling for space amongst the myriad of other short clips and ads online, epitomises the successful Conservative media strategy and its ability to “own” Labour. Released last week, as part of a late-campaign Google and YouTube blitz by both main parties, it was a parody of the infamous “card scene” in the 2003 movie Love Actually.
In the original, the character Mark tells Juliet he loves her in secret by showing her statements written on cards on her doorstep. while her husband, Peter, stays inside, unaware. The parody featured Johnson in the role of silent seducer, using the cards to persuade a woman on her doorstep to stick with him and his determination to “get Brexit done”. Johnson’s version wasn’t without a characteristic whiff of disrepute, as it echoed an earlier parody of the same scene released a few weeks earlier by the Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan.
But despite this – and despite the original clip’s rather dubious ethics – closer examination of the Love Actually associations used by the advert, demonstrate the daring willingness of the campaign to sweep up even negative perceptions of Johnson into a portrait of someone who could be relied on.
Love and fidelity
Besides the obvious association with Christmas, Love Actually stands for two main things in the British cultural imagination. Firstly, it signifies Britishness, or at least one particular variety of Britishness. This is affluent, metropolitan Britain, as celebrated in many of Curtis’s films.
Johnson was in fact the third prime minister to be linked with the film’s positive affirmation of Britishness. Both Gordon Brown (in 2006) and David Cameron (in 2013) had their own “Love Actually moment” – referencing the speech that the film’s prime minister (played by Hugh Grant) gives about UK/US relations – when standing up for Britain’s significance compared to other countries.
Secondly, the film is a warmhearted portrayal of what is genuine about relationships. It affirms that love is the force uniting people in the UK, both as human beings and as British people. Its title is subtly double, bringing both these features together. Love Actually is about the actuality of love, in all its forms. But the film gives us real love as seen through a British lens. This is indicated by its title phrase, which somewhat ironically evokes the speech patterns of the very “liberal metropolitan elite” scorned by Brexiteers.
By selecting the card scene for a Christmas election campaign, both the Allin-Khan and the Johnson versions were able to clothe themselves in the film’s overall connotations of warm, humorous, reasonable Britishness. It was an association which lent itself to promoting an approach to Brexit: To remain, in Allin-Khan’s case – to leave, in Johnson’s.
Yet, while Love Actually is about love, its most famous scene is actually about fidelity. Mark’s actions express his desire for Juliet but also the fact he covets another man’s wife. His silent declaration makes her complicit in the deceit by commanding her to tell Peter she has answered the door to carol singers. Her response is ambivalent as she returns to Peter, but only after giving Mark a consoling or encouraging (depending on your personal interpretation) kiss.
In the same spirit, Allin-Khan’s suggested people secretly wanted to vote for another party, those that comprise the ruling class (one of her cards included unflattering photos of Johnson, Rees-Mogg, and Nigel Farage, among others). Her campaign was ultimately successful, resulting in her comfortably holding her Tooting seat with 52% of the vote share.
Yet on a nationwide scale, the idea of persuading voters to ignore what many saw as an inviolable commitment to leaving the EU, as rubber-stamped by the 2016 referendum, proved much less effective. In contrast – and rather ironically for a man associated with lies and infidelity – Johnson’s video conveyed the values of loyalty, of sticking to one’s principles.
This double message, the acknowledgement of Johnson’s dishonesty and the assurance that he can be trusted, is what made his Love Actually parody so effective. It subtly referred to his reputation as a man who is not necessarily as good as his word.
One of the cards he holds up referred to the fact that he may, once again, be unable to keep his promise to get Brexit done: “If parliament doesn’t block it again.” Even more daringly, by presenting an image of Johnson creeping around London after dark, trying to keep things secret, the clip even evoked the recent speculation surrounding his relationships – notably with US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds.
Relaying a message about Brexit quietly, after dark, traded on the idea of it being a radical force – something discussed knowingly by like-minded groups of people, and perpetrated by the kind of “bad boys” who conspire in the night, rather than a responsible governing power. It acknowledged that Brexit might not make logical sense – a message Allin-Khan conveys outright in her video – but is a choice to be made from the heart not the head.
The advert’s overall impression was of Johnson speaking directly to his supporters, bypassing – as was his tendency throughout the campaign) – conventional public declarations. Hugh Grant responded to Johnson’s advert by noting that in the original, one of Mark’s cards stated: “Because at Christmas you tell the truth.”
The Johnson who appeared in the video may not be being fully honest. But for all his slipperiness, its success, like that of the Conservative campaign as a whole, was because – actually – it did not shy from the truth about Johnson and Brexit at a deeper level, while still persuading voters that Johnson was committed to doing what he says in private and public. That is, he will “get Brexit done”.