David Isaac, creative director at Family, took exception to a piece written on Political Advertising in the last issue of The Drum. Here he responds.
As someone who has been involved in creating advertising for political parties since 1997 I thought, “he can’t get away with that - there’s been some great work by other parties too.” So it was off to the toy room, saddle up the hobbyhorse and here we are. And yes, in the interests of redressing the bias, I’m blatantly throwing in some examples from our own portfolio with a little insight into why and how they were created.
But firstly, it’s important to define the role of political advertising. It’s often overstated. And it’s not helped when you read things like, “Produce a killer poster and you will be forever credited as the person who won the election single handed,” to quote Mr Labour Lawther.
Advertising can only do so much. I remember Michael Heseltine saying that in the voter’s decision-making process, the influence of advertising is about 10%. All advertising can do is capture and endorse a truth or mood; as well as provide a good story and visual for the press. Which is where I agree with Mr Lawther in that this is what the Thatcher/Hague poster did.
At the time of said poster, we were working on the national campaign for the Conservative Party. We had our own notable success. Our task was to highlight the fact that after all Labour’s promises on public services, nothing had actually changed: you were still stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work, still waiting on waiting lists and still wondering where the teachers were. The YOU PAID THE TAX campaign launched in the new year in the run up to the general election to great acclaim, even prompting the left-leaning Guardian to comment that “it was one of the best political campaigns in history.” (Their words not ours, I hasten to add.)
My fellow creative director Kevin Bird and I, both agreed that it was no award winner in the realms of Saatchi’s ‘Labour’s Not Working’ or ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’. But we’d deliberately shunned the visual analogy and potential award-seeking route that was common of political advertising of the time. We wanted to produce a real, earthy message that people could believe in and then perhaps reconsider what the Conservative party stood for. (We even wanted to run the posters for a week without the Conservative logo to get an unprejudiced ‘buy-in’ of the argument.) We were proud of YOU PAID THE TAX in that it was strategically tight as a gnat’s chuff. And we’d written it in a way in that it would work as a memorable soundbite – not soon after the posters were launched ‘YOU PAID THE TAX so where are the….?’ was soon being recited by William Hague in his speeches. Job done.
Ah, the soundbite. This tasty little political morsel is often derided but that’s mostly because they get over-used. They are a necessary evil and they work because they stick in people’s minds. “Education, education, education” from Tony Blair I guess is one of the most famous. There was an opportunity to have a pop at Mr Blair when we were working for the Scottish Conservatives in the 2001 elections. TB had said that Labour had no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education; and then Labour did just that. Kevin and I racked our brains and produced many of our own takes on “Education, education, education” in an attempt to make Tony Blair eat his own soundbite. Then, like a bolt out of the Conservative blue, it came to us. To you and I, what Tony Blair said was as a lie. However, it is very ‘unparliamentary’ to say a fellow politician is a liar. Did we know this? Did we heck. All we knew was that we’d done a very good poster in just 5 letters using his name – BLIAR. (You now know the origins of what went on to become a well-known expression.)
Kevin and I always likened writing political posters to that of Sun headlines. Short, punchy, memorable but always based on a truth. And the more topical the better. Whilst working for the SNP such a topical opportunity presented itself. Jack McConnell was, allegedly of course, in a bit of trouble over his expenses/financial irregularities or something in his Motherwell and Wishaw constituency (what you might call an early adopter in the expenses dept.). At the time Big Brother was in its hey day and very much front of mind. It wasn’t long before we got to BIG BOTHER with a sheepish-looking Jack McConnell sat in an oversized big red chair with the subhead, ‘Who do you want thrown out of the house?’ As I said earlier, one poster won’t change anyone’s political persuasion, but this was an effective way of highlighting the story and adding a few more flames to an already smouldering fire.
Whilst working for the SNP we never got to meet Alex Salmond. Just as well after we’d earlier portrayed him as a teletubby and said he was ‘Living in Scot-la-la-land’ whilst working for the Scottish Conservatives. But we did get his party a lot of press coverage when we were highlighting Labour’s failure on crime. Getting the most newspaper column inches, and to a certain extent getting the press on your side, is crucial in an election campaign. Broadcast media tends to be shackled by impartiality and there is equal weighting for each party in the news bulletins – the lead story in the political slot is the best you can hope for. But the newspapers tend to go for the most visually arresting images. This is where stunts, or rather photo opportunities/events, play their part. We’ve crushed cars to talk about the squeeze on motorists, made a bed of nails that spell out the word TAX for hoteliers and produced â€¨t-shirts with FCUK tuition fees. And, back to the SNP and Labour’s failure on crime, we showed a vandalised advan with the headline ‘Crime is rising under Labour’.
So there we go. As you can see, there has been a lot of good political advertising that has been produced in Scotland, much more than Mr Steven Labour Lawther rather lamely made out. And that little lot was just from our own portfolio. There has been a lot more.
As for this year’s general election? With the proliferation of social marketing and new communication channels, it’s a whole new ball game. Will it be one defining image that claims to steal the show or a series of strategically targeted tweets and online activity to recruit a groundswell of voters, which is how Barack Obama romped home to victory? Only time will tell.
David Isaac is Creative Director at Family. Since 1997 he has worked on political campaigns for the Scottish Conservatives, the Conservative Party and SNP, with Riley Advertising, Yellow M Scotland and family.
Family is a member of the Marketing Industry Network.