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Go home. Why the Government's ad vans were such a failure.

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Our friends at the ASA have announced they are investigating the Government-backed campaign which saw vans driving through London, calling on 'illegal immigrants' to leave the country or face arrest. This follows 60 complaints and, despite some serious doubts about the watchdog's ability to take on the coalition, I'm pleased. I'm pleased because not only was this a particularly nasty and bullying move, it was terribly poor advertising.

From my standpoint, the last eighteen months have seen the Government indulging in a cynical exercise, designed to focus people's discontent on scapegoats such as benefits claimants and immigrants (rather than say, a misconceived economic policy which has failed to pull us clear of recession). It's useful for any government to create amorphous phantoms which they can make a great show of 'tackling' in some way. It's classic political PR spin and sadly, often quite effective in the run up to an election.

When the Home Office saw their rhetoric concerning illegal immigrants producing some attractive play, it appears they decided to push matters further with their vans. And note the 'soft launch' this campaign received. By 'soft launch' I mean a complete absence of any press releases, broadcast coverage or introduction of any kind. Almost as though someone tried to sneak the whole escapade under the media radar.
Anyway, decorated with cheap graphics, the vans set about their tour of the capital (ignoring Kensington, Chelsea and Mayfair in favour of more ethnically mixed boroughs). On their sides they carried this message:

'In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest. Text 'HOME' to 78070'

And in much smaller script: 'For free advice and travel documents.'

This was set against a background shot of handcuffs.

I grew up in the 1970s. For the UK, this was an era of recession, power cuts and racial tension. As is often the case, uncertainty and fear gave the far-right some unearned popularity. Back then they called themselves the National Front and one of their slogans was, yes, 'Go Home' - and they tended to threaten more than arrest as encouragement. To see a government adopting similar language in 2013 makes me feel very uneasy. Although not as uneasy as I would feel if my heritage was something other than white Anglo-Saxon. In fact, if my parents or grandparents had come to Britain from the Caribbean or Indian sub-continent, I may have the distinct impression I was no longer welcome, 'illegal' or not.

I don't want this piece to develop into an indignant political diatribe. This probably isn't the arena. So let's explore how this campaign stands up as an effective, tax-payer funded slice of advertising.

If we are to believe those backing the work, the target audience is 'illegal immigrants' living in London. However, those who have recently arrived in Britain - perhaps fleeing persecution or abject poverty - are not known for their English literacy skills. Indeed, it could be said most would struggle to read a foreign language poster passing them at speed.

And the call to action urges those 'illegal immigrants' to send a text. Admittedly some of these renegades may actually have mobile phones (although that is far from a certainty), but how likely are they to use a handset to announce their presence to the Government? I think we all know the answer.

Even the most cursory inspection unpicks the rationale for these ads, so why would our lords and masters bother to run such an ineffective campaign? While they may just be rubbish at advertising, it's equally possible they had another audience in mind when it was created: the voting public. It's entirely plausible this whole endeavour was actually an attempt to yell:

'We don't like these immigrants and you shouldn't either. AND we're trying to get rid of them, so we must be good, eh?'

Fortunately, only a damn fool would fail to see through a ruse as blunt and puerile as that. Right?  

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told BBC Radio 5 Live the campaign would be rolled out nationally, 'if it proved effective'. He failed to say how the effectiveness would be measured, but I'd be astonished if the whole sorry debacle wasn't quietly shelved forever.

Meanwhile, a Home Office spokesman told the BBC it was in contact with the ASA and would 'respond in due course'. Not via the medium of woeful ad van posters, presumably.

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant

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