Economics

Why the UK’s Campaign to “Close In On Undeclared Income” is a Major PR Fail

No doubt you’ve seen them by now. On your way to work. Next to a bus stop. During your grocery run. Those piercing eyes, both seductive and intimidating, that say through their authoritative glare: “We will catch you.” This is the slogan that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has adopted in its aggressive campaign to root out tax cheats, and with an estimated cost of £917m, it’s also a pricey one. With so much money being poured into driving this message, though, one must wonder how effective the campaign really is. So far the only thing these billboards seem to be good for is providing a canvas on which defacers can promote their abhorrence of all things emblazoned with the HMRC logo – cheeky little remarks about government spending, bitter comments about companies and politicians they believe are dodging taxes, doodles of a certain member of the male anatomy, scribbled moustaches and cartoonish specs, the billboards do a better job at advertising the public’s discontent than they do at scaring fraudsters into paying up.

In Abbeyhill, the defacer added tears and Harry Potter-esque specs for added effect.

In the Edinburgh region of Abbeyhill, the defacer shows his
artistic prowess by adding tears and Harry Potter-esque specs for added effect.

Is it possible, in the wake of this unpopular campaign, for HMRC to clean up its image and appear more human? With Channel 4’s recent announcement that it will soon air a “Meet the Taxman” docu-series, it seems that HMRC  aims to rebrand itself as a “crime-busting investigator who brings tax-evading fat cats to justice” (no doubt a strategy by the PR department to repair its unfriendly image). Still, is this really a smart move? Should HMRC, whose sole function is to take money from you, operate in a way that makes it, well, less intimidating? Or should it resign itself to its unpopular position as the merciless money-grabbing taxman that nobody likes but everyone must pay?

Of course, the UK government is no stranger to making headlines for its bold controversial campaigns. Just last summer the Home Office had vans driven around London with billboards bluntly displaying the message: “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest,” which critics said were too insensitive and would only compound racially-charged crime. The real problem with ads such as these, though, is that they infringe too much into people’s personal lives and freedom – indeed, they are saying that they are in control, and they’re spending millions of your money to make sure you know it. Now, that is not to say that people should never pay taxes or remain in the UK if they are here illegally, but it is human nature to resist authority and be tempted to do the opposite of what we’re sternly told (I mean, how many times were you told as a child that you couldn’t have that extra sweetie, only to crave it even more?). These ads, while straight to the point, are just too invasive, and even bear a slightly unnerving Orwellian familiarity. There is absolutely nothing positive about them; even the little caption at the bottom, seemingly included as an afterthought, telling those who’ve declared their income that they have “nothing to fear,” is not wholly reasurring. It says, you are fine if you’ve given up your free will, but it is only a matter of time before we catch the miscreants.

On a phone booth outside John Lewis, St James Centre, Edinburgh.

On a phone booth outside John Lewis, St James Centre, Edinburgh.

So how, then, should HMRC advertise its message if not in this domineering way? For surely, if it wants people to declare all their income, intimidation must be the best way, right?

Well, yes and no. The best example for me to explain this answer is to use the US counterpart to HMRC – the Internal Revenue Service. The mere mention of the IRS is enough to elicit disapproving groans and long-winded rants about how people put into the system and never get anything out of it, and it’s certainly not for polite dinner conversation, but this is a government agency that has its image solidly nailed down. From the very beginning, the US taxman has carved himself as someone to be reviled; from the origins way back in the 1770s, when a motley crew of disgruntled Bostonian Tea Partiers sparked a revolution (when the tax man was still British), Americans have always had a deep-seeded resentment against paying the dreaded tax (and who could blame them, as the money they shell out doesn’t even afford them the luxury of basic healthcare?). Yet, despite their sentiment, they still pay. And the IRS does not need to publicise threatening messages at every street corner to get them to do it.

Its method, unlike the Big Brother route of HMRC, is uncannily discreet, yet equally – if not more – effective. In America you will not find overt advertisements bullying you to steer clear of hiding your income unlawfully. In fact, during tax season (January – April), the IRS is actually quite helpful in reminding you to file before the April 15 deadline. And if there are any ads relating to filing your taxes, they are strictly informative; printed ads forgo any extra graphics that razzle-dazzle you, using crisp, clear font, and the people in the commercials speak with a somewhat dull clarity and a courteous, discerning smile. Which makes this image of the IRS as an approachable, no-gimmicks agency all the more alarming when juxtaposed with the stories that often make the news, in which middle-class couples are suddenly slapped with 5-figure fines, or savvy entrepreneurs are jailed for not dotting all the “i”s or crossing all the “t”s in their filing. Not even gangsters or Hollywood stars are immune; Al Capone was imprisoned at Alcatraz for tax evasion (after the feds failed to link him to a string of infamous murders) and Wesley Snipes, star of the Blade film franchise, was just released from prison last spring after serving nearly three years for the same crime.

In short, the IRS has the media – through its lesson-serving stories of hapless victims – do all the threatening for it. You will not ever see an IRS agent as the star of a series saving the day and putting bad men behind bars. Where PR pros will tell you that a story is the basis for gaining popularity, the IRS will shun the story completely, because this government agency is not in the business to be your friend, and it is perfectly OK with that. It would much rather hang in the air as an invisible, almost omniscient presence than batter its message to a resentful pulp. Indeed, it is the ever-stalking phantom lurking in the shadows, made all the more frightening by the fact that it cannot be seen, just waiting, hoping for you to make that mistake that will spell ruin for your financial future. It capitalises on this fear, branded into US taxpayers’ very core, making advertising threats utterly unnecessary.

HMRC, before it delves too deeply into creating a crime-fighting superstar with “Meet the Taxman,” would do well to take some advice from its American equivalent before running the risk of creating an identity crisis. For no government body that is so loathed as HMRC or the IRS can be threatening and personable.

And in a country where not even a vampire hunter can evade the all-seeing Suaronic eyes of the IRS, who can argue against their method?

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