Patronising BT lady ad may not quite be the disaster it seems

That woman from the telly. Screen grab

Over a cup of tea – that is how it all started. Now it is a viral phenomenon. During the past 48 hours, the Better Together video clip featuring a woman talking about independence has been shared 2,974 times on Facebook at the time of writing, been seen by 197,740 YouTube users and it is still generating debate on Twitter under the hashtag #patronisingBTlady.

The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind is only one more video to add to the 60 existing Better Together clips on YouTube. But it has been accused of portraying Scottish women as politically ignorant, family-obsessed housewives with lower levels of education than men. Oh dear.

The obvious question is whether this video might persuade undecided women to vote Yes, in the way that it has persuaded Sandra Grieve, former convener of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Could these two minutes and 15 seconds of footage really have that effect?

It all starts with a woman sitting in her kitchen drinking a cup of tea while her husband and children are away. The format of the clip is not new to the campaign. Both Yes and No sides have their YouTube accounts full of testimonies of different types of people such as lawyers, nurses and students. The main difference in this case was that it was not a real testimony, but an actress. But in response to all the criticism, Better Together insisted that most of what she said come from real testimonies and focus groups run all over the country.

Pull the other one …

Yet referring to Alex Salmond as “that guy from the telly” is not something that many 21st-century Scottish women would want to be identified with. The same goes for the shots showing her wedding ring and the breakfast leftovers from her children. So why would Better Together launch such a video?

Women have been targeted by both sides. According to the latest Ipsos Mori poll, 8% of women are still undecided – against 5% of men. At the beginning of January 2012 the percentage of undecided women was 15% and it was even quoted at 21% in October 2012. In the past 18 months the gap in the male and female undecideds has grown steadily less, suggesting that campaigns such as Women for independence and Mums for Change have had some kind of effect. But the greater proportion of female undecideds means they continue to be a key target for campaigners.

So how influential are these kinds of ads? Research shows that during referendum campaigns, the process of opinion formation is complex and highly uncertain. In an independence campaign, many voters will rely more on campaign information because they will not be familiar with the debate. This can mean voter behaviour is more unpredictable and there are higher levels of volatility than in elections.

In this context, we need to take into consideration the fact that the media and in this case social media can behave as magnifying glasses for certain attitudes that might not accurately represent actual voting behaviour but just a momentary state of public opinion. We need to be wary of over-generalising reactions by the likes of Sandra Grieve to reflect what the wider female population will do.

Method in the madness?

Beyond doubt, the former Liberal Democrat MSP Margaret Smith was right to tweet that the clip could easily have been used to appeal to female voters in the 1979 referendum. Most of its implied values are out-dated and would be considered sexist by a high percentage of young and middle-aged women.

It is actually tempting to wonder whether the ad was targeting older women with more conservative values. It is worth pointing out that it said nothing that would be likely to convince undecided voters. The clip just repeats the existing two main arguments of the Better Together campaign: currency and oil.

Studies suggest that as the date of the referendum approaches, it is likely that some voters will change their minds. Could it be that the Better Together campaign’s strategy might be to secure votes that they already have because they are still in the leading position?

It is very difficult to determine what influences voters, but certainly there is evidence that video adverts are more likely to reinforce voting intentions than win new supporters. This would tie in with the fact that the number of undecided Conservatives voters is the lowest among the major political parties. Also 60% of over-55s are planning to vote No. This sort of clip might jar less with these kinds of people than the population as a whole.

And bear in mind that older people are not usually active on social media, so might not have been influenced much by the huge amount of criticism that the advert generated. There is a risk of misinterpreting what is just a media phenomenon and what can actually influence the voters. Whether by good luck or good management, The Woman Who Made Up Her Mind may not quite be the own goal that many claim.

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