Are the Government's Brexit ads a psychology trick on all of Britain?

PUBLISHED: 06:30 20 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:21 20 September 2019

A 'Get ready for Brexit' sign on display in public. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty

A 'Get ready for Brexit' sign on display in public. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty

David Cliff/NurPhoto

STEVE ANGLESEY wonders what sinister motives might be behind the government's new £140m Brexit advertising campaign

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The phrase "spaffing it up the wall" is back in the public consciousness; thankfully not as a result of new revelations about initiation ceremonies in David Cameron's autobiography but courtesy of a Boris Johnson press conference in Rotherham.

Visiting the south Yorkshire town as part of the genius Dominic Cummings strategy which calls for him to be booed, heckled and otherwise humiliated in every burgh in Britain (not to mention the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg), the prime minister was asked about a radio interview in which "you said that lots of police forces were spaffing money up the wall in investigations of historic child sex abuse, is that something you still believe?" Shaking his head slowly and sadly, Johnson replied: "That's actually not what I said."

Complete vindication soon followed for our veracious PM when footage of the interview in question emerged, showing him actually saying: "An awful lot of money and police time goes into these historic offences… £60million I saw was being spaffed up the wall on some investigation into historic child abuse." An important distinction there, and one which should bury the nonsense about Boris being a liar once and for all.

Money is literally being spaffed up the wall, however, by Johnson's own government via its £140 million 'Get Ready For Brexit' campaign. Spaffed on billboards and bus stop posters, spaffed on newspaper pages, radio commercials and Facebook ads. Most recently the government has even been spaffing on those motorway dot matrix variable message signs which, to be fair, do exist to warn us of impending carnage just a few miles ahead.

Who is the intended target of the spaffing? The spaffer-in-chief, Michael Gove, insists the messages are meant for "everyone" from business owners to hauliers and EU citizens. But does he really just mean "everyone"?

Certainly, the spaffing looks remarkably indiscriminate. Recipients of the largesse include The New European podcast on which I appear each week. Our last two episodes have been begun with pre-roll adverts (over which we have no control) advising the UK's most pro-Remain podcast listeners to get ready for Brexit.

No doubt the many hauliers who enjoy our weekly doses of anti-Leave vitriol and musings about Throbbing Gristle and Beatrice Dalle will welcome the heads-up; the rest of us are left with a nagging sense that the government don't have the slightest clue what they are doing.

Over £25,000 has gone on a single advert on the social messaging app Snapchat, whose users tend to be carefree millennials seeking filters which will make them look like Pikachu rather than worried business owners wanting advice about tariffs under a no-deal Brexit. Handily, the advert in question contained no link through to the government website where advice about a no-deal Brexit can be found.

On Facebook, the campaign spent more than £216,000 between September 8-15. A look at the social network's library of ads suggests that of this, only just over £6,000 went on adverts specifically aimed at commercial drivers and hauliers, while the lion's share went on generic messaging including "Brexit is happening on 31 October. Find out what you need to do to get ready" and "Plan for Brexit. 31 October. Find out what you need to do to prepare".

Take all this together with the mantras repeated by ministers when questioned about possible delays to Brexit ("I've been quite clear that we are leaving the EU on October 31st…") and you're likely to conclude that the Get Ready For Brexit campaign is not just about providing targeted advice to British business owners ahead of our departure. It's also about convincing a wider audience that the natural order of things is that we leave on Halloween, regardless of all the very good reasons why we shouldn't and legally might be unable to do so. For the government, reinforcing this message of an unstoppable Brexit naturally becomes more important the more Brexit actually looks stoppable.

They are operating what psychologists call the 'illusion of truth' effect: In short, people are more likely to buy into an untrue, frequently repeated statement ('we're leaving on October 31 and there's nothing anyone can do about it') than a true, little-repeated one ('we can't yet say if we're leaving on October 31, it's very possible we're not and leaving without a deal would be a disaster'). This even works when those doing the repeating are known to have been repeatedly lying.

In our minds, familiarity tops rationality. A message we hear again and again becomes familiar and therefore easier for us to process. The ease begins to signal truth. And that's how millions of us end up believing that we currently send £350 million a week to the EU but will soon be giving it to the NHS instead.

But could there be a glitch in the system? On the M11 and M25 this weekend, the dot matrix variable message signs read "Freight To EU Papers May Change Nov 1 Please Check". What's with the uncertainty of 'May Change' all of a sudden? Aren't we leaving on October 31st, do or die? Has anyone told Dominic Cummings about this deviation from the agreed line by dot matrix variable motorway message signs that seem determined to undermine the will of the people? One thing is clear: We are leaving on October 31 and once we do, no spineless Remainer dot matrix variable motorway message sign will ever be allowed to stand as a Tory MP again.

And in the million-to-one scenario where we don't end up leaving? Well, what's £140m spaffed up the wall between friends?

Brexiteers of the week

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4. MARK FRANCOIS

The Brexity Benny the Ball from Top Cat declared on Politics Live that "if we don't leave on the 31st of October, the country will explode". But will Mark's own waistline explode too?

As his local paper reported, Francois "popped into visit Deliveroo's UK headquarters in the City of London recently, when he was travelling into Westminster on a Monday morning".

Cynics might question why the MP, whose 2004-08 expenses included claims for Mars bars, Pringles, Peperami, Snickers, Twiglets and Jaffa Cakes, would take such a keen interest in a food delivery service based an hour's drive from his constituency. But as he pointed out: "I know from chatting to constituents that they are certainly pretty popular in Essex, so I thought it made sense to visit."

Next week: Mark launches a fact-finding mission to the Whitehall McDonald's.

3. BORIS JOHNSON

Reportedly slumped in his chair at the Luxembourg summit after hearing that the UK's new backstop-beating ruse of allowing Northern Ireland to observe EU rules on food and livestock would not prevent the vast majority of customs checks on goods at the Irish border.

"So you're telling me the plan doesn't solve the customs problem," he is said to have asked Brexit secretary Steve "The Hulk was a winner and was extremely popular" and chief negotiator David Frost, although it could just have been a guttural cry of "HULK NO UNDERSTAND COMPLEXITY OF SINGLE MARKET".

2. LIZ TRUSS

The international trade secretary's apology after the UK accidentally sold arms to Saudi Arabia followed on from the failure of her 'Brexit vouchers' scheme.

As revealed by BuzzFeed, Truss proposed a plan costing £30 million, in which small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that export to the EU would be given a £1,500 voucher to pay for advice from lawyers and accountants ahead of our departure from the EU. The idea was quickly scrapped because of fears that, in the absence of checks, some businesspeople may have simply taken the money and split it with an accountant chum.

But another stumbling block may have been that as 8% of the UK's 5.7 million SMEs currently export to Europe, the actual cost would have been nearer £684 million!

1. NIGEL FARAGE

The nicotine-stained man-frog announced last Friday that he was boycotting the BBC after being "treated like a war criminal" on The Andrew Marr Show during the European parliament election campaign. "You'd have thought I was at Nuremberg for something awful I'd done," Farage moaned in an interview on TalkRadio.

It's an interesting sort of embargo given that two days earlier Nigel had appeared live on The Andrew Neil Show, which last time we checked was on BBC2. This defiant act of busting his own boycott was enlivened when a well-wisher popped up behind him wearing a T-shirt reading 'Keep The Immigrants, Deport The Racists'.

Farage has since devoted a chunk of his LBC radio show to questioning why the BBC gives so much airtime to Anna Soubry. Is she boycotting them too?

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