Led By Donkeys
Led By Donkeys is a British anti-Brexit political campaign group which uses satire targeted at pro-Brexit politicians. Since the group's creation in December 2018, its four founders have been calling out what they call "thermonuclear hyprocrisy". Led By Donkeys' main campaign consists of billboards containing past tweets by pro-Brexit politicians which state the politicians' previous political positions, which have clearly not stood the test of time. The campaign was initially run as a guerilla operation, in which Led By Donkeys posters were plastered over existing adverts. It was then expanded into a crowdfunded campaign that legitimately purchased advertising space on hundreds of billboards across the UK. Later the group staged real-life stunts, including projecting messages on iconic places such as the Houses of Parliament and the White Cliffs of Dover, carving giant messages on beaches and fields, and directing crowds to unfurl huge flags at pro-European Union marches. Videos of these messages were subsequently viewed millions of times on social media.
The name Led By Donkeys comes from the phrase "Lions led by donkeys", referring to British soldiers in the First World War who were led to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. Led By Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 Social Purpose Awards organised by marketing website the Drum. The founders wrote a book titled 'Led By Donkeys: How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit' about their experience.
In December 2018, two years after the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, four friends were discussing their frustrations with the ongoing Brexit situation in The Birdcage, a pub in Stoke Newington. Then Prime Minister Theresa May had just decided not to put her withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons. All four men have a connection with environmental campaign group Greenpeace; Oliver Knowles and Ben Stewart are employees, and James Sadri and Will Rose had previously been involved with the group. In the referendum, they had all voted to remain in the EU. They were laughing in disbelief as they passed a phone around displaying a David Cameron tweet from 2015, dating from before the last election, saying "Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband". Knowles praised Cameron for not having deleted the tweet. They agreed it would be a real shame if he did, as in their view it summed up the "failure of Britain’s political leadership". They were also frustrated by the failure, in their view, of British media holding the Brexiteers to account. While brainstorming how the tweet could be preserved, in a museum perhaps, one of them noticed a billboard outside. They decided to print it out and paste it up. Each of them then chose a pro-Brexit politician they despised the most and looked for their "most offensive lies, lunacy and hypocrisy" to go on billboards as well, as "tweets you can't delete". They settled on these four: Michael Gove saying, in 2016, "The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and can choose the path we want"; Liam Fox saying in 2017 "The Free Trade Agreement that we will do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history"; David Davis saying in 2016 "There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside"; and John Redwood saying in 2016 "Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy - the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation". By Christmas 2018, these same politicians were lamenting that Theresa May's poor deal with the EU represented servitude.
Rose designed the posters. The group realised that in order to be able to put photos of the billboards on social media they needed a name, and Sadri came up with "Lions led by donkeys", a common phrase referring to soldiers in the First World War who were led to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. They thought it described the relationship between the British people and their Brexit leaders well. Rose shortened it to #LedByDonkeys. They had the five tweets printed at billboard size. The activists bought a ladder, high-visibility jackets to look legitimate, a bucket, a roller and wallpaper paste, and late at night on 8 January 2019 they illegally plastered the David Cameron tweet over a finance advert on a billboard on the intersection of Manor Road and the A10 in Stoke Newington. They posted a photo of the billboard to their new Twitter account and asked The Guardian journalist Marina Hyde to retweet it, soon resulting in #LedByDonkeys trending on Twitter. Within a day their billboard poster had been plastered over with blue paper.
In between their day jobs and family life, at night the group illegally pasted the other four original tweets on billboards around London. The group stated that one of its aims was to spark a discussion amongst Leave voters about the promises of the leading Brexiteers. They therefore chose Dover, a pro-Brexit constituency, as their next location. They selected four additional historical Brexiteer statements, partially from suggestions made by their social media followers, among which was Dominic Raab's 2018 statement "I hadn't quite understood the full extent of this but ... we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing". On 16 January 2019 the group tweeted photos of the four Dover billboards, along with the message "A busy night on the Brexit frontline. We’ve covered Dover in the historic quotes of the people responsible for this chaos. Britain is a nation #LedByDonkeys." The group later stated that this was the moment when they went viral. The next day all four posters were removed by the billboard company.
Social media followers asked for billboards all over the country, rather than just the South East of England, which voted mostly Remain. The activists deplored the tribalism triggered by Brexit and agreed that going national was needed. Their followers suggested that they set up a crowdfunder to raise money to legitimately put billboards up in places far outside London. Initially the group resisted this, considering the fact that their acts were illegal to be an important part of the activism of the project. They also feared they would have to give up their anonymity to get crowdfunding, thus risking fines and convictions. But when people from crowdfunder.co.uk contacted them, they learned that they could stay anonymous, and video footage of the Dover billboards being removed within a day made the group change their mind. They set up a fundraising target of £10,000. It was reached within 3 hours. By November 2019 the group had raised £500,000 and had become the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history.
The group has described itself in various ways: "a Brexit accountability project", calling out "thermonuclear hypocrisy", and "political street theatre". They did not have a grand plan with big ambitions. Initially, they simply considered it cathartic to do something themselves, namely, hold the Brexiteers to account, which they thought nobody else was doing but should. They brought the Greenpeace "ethos of the mindbomb of campaigning", where one single picture can shift people's perceptions, to their Led By Donkeys work. Humour plays a key part as well. According to one of the activists, "making fun of politicians has the ability to break through" the partisan atmosphere a bit. They not only made fun of Brexiteers. They also ridiculed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for his ambivalent stance on Brexit with an empty billboard.
For months, who was behind Led By Donkeys was unknown; nobody at Greenpeace knew that two of their staff were among the founders. Although the activists did give interviews, including with international press such as Al Jazeera and NPR, these did not reveal their names; some used fake first names instead. When on 17 May 2019 political website Guido Fawkes, which is linked to the Leave campaign, claimed on social media that Led By Donkeys was breaching election laws by overspending, the activists realised that it would not be long before their names would be revealed. To pre-empt this, they arranged an interview with The Observer in order to make their identities public themselves. Six months later they published a book describing their unexpected adventure, entitled Led By Donkeys: How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit.
Their main campaign of holding Brexiteers accountable for past promises and exposing their flipflopping views has been ongoing. By November 2019 over 300 billboards in predominantly pro-Brexit areas have carried their messages, estimated to have reached by 30 million people.
The design of statements as tweets on billboards was tweaked in late January 2019. One of the billboards featured Jacob Rees-Mogg's 2011 statement in the House of Commons that it might make sense to have two referendums. Led By Donkeys had rendered it in its standard tweet format. Rees-Mogg had called the billboard dishonest, not only because he had been talking about different circumstances, but also because he was not on Twitter yet in 2011. Led By Donkeys from then on added a footnote to billboards featuring statements other than tweets. In the case of Rees-Mogg they added "He didn't tweet it, he actually said it! In the House of Commons. What changed?" Once they collaborated with satirical artist Coldwar Steve on a more elaborated billboard shown at pop festival Glastonbury 2019.
Over time the activists chose other media as well, besides billboards. They have used ad vans, industrial projectors,, beaches, fields, and 800 square meters crowd flags. The first crowd flag was unfolded on Parliament Square by thousands of anti-Brexit protesters at the conclusion of the Put It to the People march on 23 March 2019. Led By Donkeys had hired a helicopter to film the unfolding from the air. The banner had a 2012 quote from David Davis “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
When the EU were considering to give the UK an extension to the original deadline of 29 March 2019, Led By Donkeys used a giant projector to display a video on the White Cliffs of Dover. Their goal was to ask the EU leaders for much more time, so that there could be a second referendum. The video displayed an SOS in blue, with the O made up of yellow stars, to mimic the EU flag. EU leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted back the next day that it was "quite something to see the White Cliffs of Dover turn blue". Other projections include a video projected onto the Houses of Parliament, asking if Boris Johnson is a criminal, after the judges ruled he unlawfully had suspended parliament; onto Buckingham Palace saying "Your majesty, your new prime minister is a liar"; and projections onto Edinburgh Castle; Cardiff Castle; and the Titanic Museum in Belfast. In September 2019 Michael Gove was in charge of preparing the UK for a No-deal Brexit. In March Gove had written in a Daily Mail article that there is no mandate for a No-deal Brexit: "We didn’t vote to leave without a deal". To call out this contradiction, Led By Donkeys carved a 7,500 square meters portrait of Gove and this quote in the sandy beach of Redcar. Coinciding with the Let Us Be Heard march on 19 October 2019, Led By Donkeys ploughed a message in 40 meter high letters in a field in Wiltshire, saying "Britain now wants to remain". This conclusion was based on a YouGov analysis of 300 polls. The activists hired a helicopter to film the event from the air.
March to Leave
In March 2019, it was announced that Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage were to organise a two week pro-Brexit march from Sunderland to London titled March to Leave. Led By Donkeys set up a dedicated crowdfundraiser entitled "Let's take the truth to Farage's Brexit march". They deliberately did not target the marchers, just their leader. The collective hired two advans to accompany the pro-Brexit march, displaying past statements and videoclips of Farage. A YouTube videoclip of Farage not being happy with the advan displaying his 2016 declaration "If Brexit is a disaster I’ll go and live abroad" had been watched 2 million times within weeks.
In April 2019, the Brexit Party set up an official website at thebrexitparty.org, but did not register thebrexitparty.com; Led By Donkeys registered a parody website at that address. The Brexit Party did not publish a manifesto prior to the EU elections in May. Led By Donkeys decided to write it for them by putting their past statements and tweets on billboards across the UK, and keep a repository on the parody website. The Led By Donkeys efforts failed to achieve their goal. The Brexit Party won the most seats in the election. Later in 2019, after having received a threatening legal letter from the Brexit Party to cease and desist, citing EU law, the group offered them the web address for over a million pounds.
Trump's state visit
US President Donald Trump had made pro-Brexit statements and praised Farage and Johnson. Prior to Trump's state visit to London in June 2019, Led By Donkeys designed a campaign to diminish the two leading Brexiteers through association with the unpopular president. Led By Donkeys projected onto Big Ben a 2015 video of Johnson saying that Trump would be unfit for the presidency. Before they could get arrested, they moved the projector to the Tower of London to project a comparison of Trump's UK approval rating of 21% and former president Barack Obama's of 72%. Finally they projected a red USS John S. McCain hat onto the dome of Madame Tussauds, trolling Trump based on news reports that in Japan his aides orchestrated events to avoid Trump seeing the ship's crew displaying the name of his adversary. The group cancelled plans of projecting Trump's Access Hollywood tape onto Buckingham Palace during his state dinner with the Queen at the eleventh hour. On their social media account the group posted videos of their stunts. Johnson's Big Ben video was viewed two million times; the three videos together enmassed 12 million views on Twitter. Johnson cancelled a previously arranged meeting with Trump.
Get ready for Brexit
Following the government's multimillion pound Get ready for Brexit advertising campaign in August 2019, with a No-deal Brexit a possibility as the October 31 deadline was approaching, Led By Donkeys crowdfunded money for a spoof campaign. The group felt the government was overlooking the negative effects of a No-deal Brexit and the ad campaign was poorly designed. They put up billboards in the style of the official campaign but featuring conclusions from the governments own analysis, for example "Get ready for 'possible increased risk of serious organised crime'". They subsequently ran a competition for members of the public to see who could best satirise the government's ad campaign. The five winning entries were displayed on billboards across the country. A crowd flag with the message "Get ready for a People's Vote" in the visual design of the government's own campaign was unfolded on Parliament Square during the Let Us Be Heard march in October 2019.
Leading up to the general election on 12 December 2019 Led By Donkeys continued their main anti-Brexit campaign. In addition to using billboards, ad-vans, and projections, they staged various real-world acts, filmed them and spread them on social media. In the final week before the election they crowdfunded over £250,000 within 24 hours to run anti-Johnson ads on Facebook, making them one of the largest spenders on political ads. Three ads were each viewed more than one million times. The group organised the carving of a giant message on a Devon beach, with six doctors and nurses writing "You can't trust Boris Johnson with our NHS". GPS technology was used to draw the outlines of the letters and Johnson. The NHS staff filled it in. A similar technique was used when teachers wrote a giant anti-Johnson message in a field in the Peak District. The Led By Donkeys efforts did not achieve their goal. The pro-Brexit parties won the majority of seats, although the parties that campaigned for at least a second referendum received the majority of votes.
The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. Led By Donkeys projected a video message to the EU on the White Cliffs of Dover featuring World War Two veterans expressing sadness about leaving the EU and hope that one day Britain will be together with Europe again. The video of the projection was seen a million times on Brexit Day. Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt responded with "We'll look after your star". On Big Ben the group projected a compilation of controversial clips of Johnson and Farage, punctuated by fake Big Ben bongs.
Despite their messages having been seen hundreds of millions of times on social media and some mainstream media exposure, the Led By Donkeys campaigns failed to help stop Brexit. Their spokesman Stewart said that this was due to Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, as actually only a minority of votes in the 2019 general election were for a pro-Brexit party. He did not think their efforts had been in vain: "we didn’t set out to try and stop Brexit. We were trying to fill a vacuum left by a broken media ecosystem. The media weren’t holding power to account and we managed to really piss off people like David Davis and others, so we were holding power to account in their place, and that’s really what we intended to do". Despite Stewart considering their efforts not being in vain in that they brought evidence of political hypocrisy to a mass audience, he did identify what he sees as a worrying phenomenon: "On both sides of the Atlantic, the concept of shame and political leaders paying a price for lying and dissembling is in retreat."
Led By Donkeys vowed to continue their work after Brexit Day. Stewart said "there’s much still to fight for ... Our future relationship with Europe has not yet been defined." "We’re not shutting up shop just yet”.
In January 2019 Led By Donkeys illegally put up a quote by Boris Johnson that none of the billboard companies were willing to accept, near the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull, a place affected by Brexit-related job losses. In 2018 Johnson had responded to business concerns about a hard Brexit with a simple "Fuck business". The Birmingham Mail reported the next day the local community had reacted with fury as the billboard was near a school. But one local interviewed said "In an ideal world the billboard wouldn't be there, but in an ideal world our foreign secretary wouldn't be the type of person who thinks 'f***k business' is an acceptable response to people losing their jobs."
Guardian columnist Dan Foster did not believe the billboards have changed anybody's opinion. Specifically regarding the Brexit Party manifesto billboards, she believed them to be counterproductive and actually helped spread the beliefs. One billboard, featuring Ann Widdecombe's quote "homosexual acts are wrongful" with the headline “Target gay people”, was meant to warn voters of her homophobic beliefs. Foster called it fundamentally flawed, overlooking the fact that most people would not see it as a warning. To most it would seem like an anti-gay campaign. Led By Donkeys had pulled the billboard within 24 hours after social media backlash, acknowledged their mistake, and apologised for any unintentional pain to the gay community.
People in the marketing world have praised their campaigns. Writing in the industry magazine Campaign, Angus Macadam thought the creative was "quite brilliant in its meditative simplicity" and added "these messages hinge on and are driven by the one thing we currently miss most in politics: inarguable truth". In the same magazine Eliza Williams called the group's campaign "witty" and "subversive". Led By Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 Social Purpose Awards organised by marketing website the Drum.
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