When politics met advertising

Posted on 12th February 2015 by Sam Delaney
Since the 1950s, politics has become increasingly reliant on advertising to get its message across. Sam Delaney, author of Madmen and Badmen: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising, goes through the last 50 years and how the two became inextricably linked.

It was 6th April 2010.  Before the assembled British press, George Osborne whipped away a curtain and unveiled a giant billboard: an image of two enormous hob-nailed boots, thundering through a post apocalyptic tundra, one with ‘Job Tax’ emblazoned across the toe-cap, the other with ‘More debt.’ The boot on the left was about to crush a tiny green shoot emerging from the barren landscape. ‘Vote for change, vote Conservative,’ implored the headline in the bottom right corner. As the assembled hacks tried to make sense of the visual analogy that towered before them, two Conservative aides emerged in Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling face masks, wearing the same boots from the poster, and started to dance on an actual green shoot, to the strains of Nacy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking.’

It was all bit surreal but the message was clear: a vote for us is a vote for sound economic management and a rejection of barmy Labour spend-thriftery. 

Which was pretty much the same sentiment behind every Tory election campaign since 1950. Times might change, political parties evolve and advertising agencies come and go but the battle lines that were drawn in the aftermath of World War 2 still apply today. Vote for the party that will spend, spend, spend on providing for the needy or the party that will keep your taxes down and balance the books.

The truth behind these twin narratives is neither here nor there. These are the stories that MP’s and their admen have chosen, based on the preconceptions of voters. Give or take a few, the vast majority of British voters implicitly trust the Labour Party on public services and the Conservative Party on the economy. Admen are not in the business of changing people’s prejudices; they are in the business of exploiting them. 

So what should we expect in 2015? The Conservatives have shown their hand already: an election broadcast in late January stressed the progress of the British economy under their stewardship. “There is still work to be done,” said a bullish David Cameron. But we must “stick to the plan” or go back to “the chaos” of Labour taxes and borrowing.

Effectively, the Tories are taking the lead and framing the debate as one about economic management. You might expect Labour’s ad team to counter this by savaging Tory cuts and pointing to the proliferation of food banks, the biggest fall in real earnings since Victorian times, the downgrading of growth forecasts for the coming years or, most crucially of all, the failure of George Osborne to deliver on his promise of balancing the books by the end of this parliament.

It’s not as if they didn’t warn people. Labour’s 2010 campaign presented Gordon Brown as a wise old head in comparison to callow youth David Cameron. One poster pictured a stern looking Brown beside the headline ‘Building a foundation.’ Next to it was a picture of a heavily airbrushed David Cameron with the headline ‘Wearing one.’ The idea was that Brown had the experience steer the country out of recession - and that the Tories had a dangerous plan to cut spending by record amounts. Their predictions about Tory plans turned out to be largely true. But strangely, they seem reluctant to point this out in their ads this time around.

Chris Powell, Labour’s adman in chief for many years, says that they helped Tony Blair win his landslide in 1997 by repeatedly attacking John Major’s failure to fulfil his economic promises. This, says Powell, is the ‘cardinal sin’ for a Tory PM. If they can’t balance the books, what can they do? But current Labour advertising seems to have overlooked this rationale, ignoring Osborne’s broken promises and allowing the Tory campaign to merrily declare that they have, in fact, put the country back on the road to a prosperity. 

‘Let’s stay on the road to a stronger future’ says the latest Tory campaign poster, claiming (somewhat spuriously according to most independent research) that the deficit has been halved. If Labour had made such iffy claims about the health of the economy in 2010, the Tory ad campaign (masterminded, as ever, by the devilish and combative team at M&C Saatchi) would have confronted the claims head on. The Saatchi motto at elections is ‘hit first, hit hard and keep on hitting.'

But Labour have steered clear and retreated to the safety of their comfort zone: public services. Their latest broadcast features an elderly war veteran recalling life before the NHS, when his young sister died of TB in a workhouse hospital. Meanwhile, a registrar looks concerned and talks vaguely about cuts. While the Tories fill their ads with convincingly spun facts and figures about job creation and debt reduction, Labour’s ads choose a rather more sentimental message. History has shown us that when times are tough, Britain votes for the party with the most convincing economic argument. One that can be expressed convincingly in a short headline such as ‘Labour isn’t working’ or ‘Labour’s tax bombshell.’ 

Labour’s latest poster goes with the headline: ‘The Tories want to cut spending on public services back to the levels of the 1930’s, when there was no NHS.’ There are 21 words in that. Judging by the ad campaigns so far, Labour could be about to miss the biggest open goal in electoral history.


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