They see her Rowling, they hatin’…

JK Rowling has joined a number of celebrities in publicly backing a side in the Scottish Independence debate; but will it make a difference to how people vote?

Liam Fox-FlynnThis week, Liam Fox-Flynn is back with a blog so great that, even though I’m back in the office, I had to post it.

As a Scotsman, one thing that vexes me no end is that point in the night when someone asks me about Scottish independence. It happens frequently in the pub and can come from a complete stranger who overhears the mellifluous cadences of my Scottish brogue, an acquaintance attempting to rescue a conversation from the brink or a friend who is just curious.

It’s certainly a topical issue – the referendum is 3 months away and as the date begins to loom, each side is making more noise and English broadsheets are starting to take notice. Recently it emerged that JK Rowling has just donated £1million to Scotland’s anti-independence campaign, ‘Better Together’. To say that the response has been mixed would be an understatement; nevertheless, the very public backing has certainly garnered a lot of attention.

I looked at the effect of celebrity endorsements on brands in my last blog and far from mining a well worn well –  I realised that it’s not exactly the same story.

For brands, the use of celebrities is generally there to boost salience and build or re-enforce an image of a brand, which applies to political parties to some extent. For brands, the key issues are: Is the celebrity relevant or differentiating? Does the relevance/differentiator relate to my brand? How do I turn that link into a campaignable “big idea” for my brand?              

In this particular instance though, it’s more about respect for the endorser and less to do with fit. You might trust Ronaldo to promote football boots, but would you trust him on this issue? You’re faced with questions such as “Do I admire their values?” and “Do they know what they’re talking about?” Which isn’t as straight-forward as for Nike – Ronaldo’s good at football; but how politically savvy is JK Rowling? In that sense, a good celebrity backing can offer affirmation rather than persuasion.

A celebrity could be useful for speaking to different groups – Noel Gallagher’s support of Tony Blair was an excellent compliment to what New Labour were trying to communicate in the ashes of Thatcherism and P-Diddy attempted to speak to African American youths in a way that Bruce Springsteen probably couldn’t. This might have more to do with capitalising on apathy than anything else and there is no evidence that a celebrity can change perceptions of an established political party (it’s a bit like trying to change the course of a cruise-liner with a sharpie sail).

Of course, the same dangers of celebrity endorsements arise here too – Clint Eastwood is an American icon, which should have made him both a relevant and appropriate fit when he was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention, but when he  in his speech, the high profile star was actually a source of viral embarrassment. It can also backfire when celebrities famous for their outspoken political views change their tune; Obama has recently received criticism from respected liberals such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and all-round good guy, Matt Damon.

Ultimately though, there are many more variables in the mix when it comes to politics as opposed to a brand. I might consider trying a Nespresso if it’s as refined and cultured as their dishy ambassador, George Clooney, but I’m not going to vote on my country’s future because one of the Krankies tells me to. I’ll acknowledge the opinions of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh because I respect them (not that I don’t respect Jimmy Krankie, quite the opposite) but it’s not going to influence my decision in the same way as debates or statistics would.

Viewing this from a System 1/System 2 perspective, or rationally or emotionally, there’s an argument that this particular case involves both rational and emotional decisions. The rational points surrounding economics (be they positive or negative); the romantic case for independence; or the ‘gut feeling’ from being brought up in a nationalistic household are definitely going to be key factors when people enter the voting booth, but is a respected author’s advocacy of a political ideal going to convince me in the same way as George will when I’m considering an espresso machine? Probably not.

Not that I can vote, mind. As an expat, I don’t have the option. Which puts me in the same boat as long time ambassador and SNP poster-boy, Sean Connery. Except I’ve never won ‘Sexiest Man Alive’, won an Oscar or played a dragon. At least I wasn’t in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen though.

A special thanks to my muse, Jon Harper, for his inspiration and advice in this blog.

Thanks again to Liam Fox-Flynn from Ipsos ASI UK. At Ipsos ASI, we help our clients make thing simply, better. Follow Ipsos ASI on Twitter @IpsosASIUK.

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