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Billboards aren't working: Where is the creativity in this year's election?

From Saatchi & Saatchi’s iconic 1979 ‘Labour isn’t Working’ for the Conservatives, to William Hague adorned with Thatcher’s hair, the political poster was something of a British institution. But in an age of online content and political apathy, are we seeing an end to above-the-line creativity in politics? Katie McQuater takes a look.

We’ve become familiar with the now hackneyed image of often bored-looking politicians lined up in front of a billboard van to launch their party’s election poster. But rather than scaled outdoor advertising of the kind deployed by brands, these are now generally PR stunts orchestrated to tick the boxes of press coverage and social sharing.

This has a lot to do with the nature of this election. The ‘spray and pray’ approach doesn’t cut it in an election that will be swayed by results in marginal seats says Johnny Hornby, the founder of The&Partnership who worked on Tony Blair’s 1997 election campaign.

“Posters are very inefficient and badly targeted for an election like the one playing out,” he explains, and, he believes, the Conservative budget is being spent on digital ads and “sophisticated, Obama-style” emails.

“If you live in a key marginal, you’re seeing all sorts of communications. If you don’t, the only bits you see are on Sky News or when you pick up a copy of the Times or the Mail and see Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg standing next to an ad van in a miserable car park. In the old days, if you unveiled a poster on an ad van it was because you were going to see 2,000 of them.”

Creative Review: 

Spend on outdoor posters is down, with digital a bigger focus, and user generated content attracting more interest than that generated on official channels. Yet Al Young, creative partner at St Luke’s, feels that although the move towards digital advertising makes sense, the impact of outdoor ads on our psyche is perhaps overlooked.

“The move to the responsive, intimate world of social and digital display makes perfect sense, intellectually at least. But does it make sense emotionally? There is something undeniably commanding about posters looming over us in the street. The most memorable (and frightening) political brands recognise the power of the icon, the power of ubiquity. And when you want to manipulate millions of minds about where power should reside, you need scale before intimacy.”

While the medium has obviously changed, what of the message? With many apathetic about the election, perhaps it’s all just a bit too, well, political. “Presuming that someone is interested in your advertising is a cardinal mistake,” says FCB Inferno executive creative director Gary Robinson. “The famous ‘Labour isn’t Working’ poster didn’t presume I was interested in party politics, it made a comment about society. The dole queues are getting longer. Now that I care about.”

Johnny Hornby, unsurprisingly, as the man behind the Hague/Thatcher poster, takes a different view. Creating an effective piece of political communication is a carefully balanced act of being just a bit nasty, but doing it in a way that people can see the funny side, he says. Something online content creators have hit on the head. “It’s telling that Cassette Boy, who are just a couple of blokes, have all the ingredients – they’re funny, creative, they get to the heart of it. They take the mickey out of somebody by finding something that is actually true about them and exemplifying it.”

As to the future medium of political advertising, for Hornby, strong creative will be delivered as part of data-driven brand strategies, in the manner of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. “The next phase of electioneering will be about programmatic, big data, and one-to-one at scale. I don’t think either of the major parties have got there on that yet.”

It’s a far cry from a billboard plastered on a van in a car park.

We asked the ad industry to give us their views on this year's political posters...

Conservative

Conservative

Al Young, creative partner, St Luke’s

Iconic images hold more power than words. The Tories have always understood this – and also know fear works. Salmond has been replaced by a new fearsome creature from the deep in the shape of Nicola. Maybe this execution was pre-Sturgeon, but the image might emasculate Ed still further were he depicted in her pocket – especially after the motherly tough-love she lavished on Wee Ed during the challengers’ debate.
 

Gary Robinson, executive creative director, FCB Inferno

Coming from the north east, praising anything from the Conservatives would normally have me locked up while having stale stotties thrown at my head. But looking at it as a poster I like the fact it gets its point across with no words and taps into a real fear in a simple way – telling us that an SNP Labour coalition will be a bad thing, a tartan tail wagging the big red dog.
 

Johnny Hornby, founder, The&Partnership

Much as politicians don’t like it, it’s much more powerful to expose the weaknesses of your opposition. The problem with the Alex Salmond execution and the Tory portrayal of Ed Miliband is that they have tried to portray him as two things. He’s either a nasty backstabber or he’s auseless geek – he can’t be both. It's a clever execution, and it’s better than most of the other things I've seen, but it’s essentially got to be true.

Labour – ‘The doctor can’t see you now’

Labour – ‘The doctor can’t see you now’

Chris Moody, creative director, Wolff Olins

Labour’s ‘doctor’ poster is a brilliant example of the enduring power of a creative concept, and the way it can influence thinking. The problem is it’s not Labour’s creative concept. The original version is so ingrained in the consciousness for so many people, it just screams vote Conservative. If you recognise the start point you don’t even really read the copy, you just think of the Tories as part of a Pavlovian response. For those too young to get the reference it just looks like a grim Lowry painting. Rehashing the past is not the way to inspire tomorrow’s ‘Beliebers’ and ‘Directioners’ to run to the ballot box.

Labour – ‘Next time, they’ll cut to the bone’

Labour – ‘Next time, they’ll cut to the bone’

Chris Moody, creative director, Wolff Olins

This is so downbeat, so depressing, so Orwellian in its look and feel that I want to reach for the morphine. Again the point it’s trying to make is solid but it goes about it with all the grace of Kathy Bates and a lump hammer. With huge chunky type which is faintly reminiscent of the government 80s Aids health warnings, this is scaremongering pure and simple. There’s no doubt it’s a rock hard piece of communication design, but sadly it will do no more and no less than reaffirm the beliefs of those whom have already made up their minds. Its sentiment feels so distant to a Google generation looking for solutions rather than highlighted misery in 400pt type.

Lib Dem

Lib Dem

Al Young, creative partner, St Luke’s

They’re gunning for a new coalition – with either party – so are marketing themselves as the moderate voice between extremes.

They tell us they face neither left, nor right – but forward! An end to Punch and Judy, etc. But for those of us that still remember Nick Clegg’s pre-coalition pledges to shelve Trident, axe tuition fees and introduce a mansion tax, it’s more a case of LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT, THEN LOOK A BIT-MORE-LEFT AT US.

 

Billy Faithfull, executive creative director, WCRS

Choosing your political allegiances is almost exactly like crossing a road. To explain: you look left, at Labour, then you look right, at the Tories, then you ‘cross’ in the middle of the road where it’s safest to walk. Hang on. No, it definitely works because it’s like the Green Cross Code, except the yellows are better than the greens, who don’t feature on this poster. No one loves a quality pun more than me, but there’s something undeniably antiquated about it. It’s a chuckle designed for the club members, but really does nothing to persuade me to join.

Green

Green

Chris Moody, creative director, Wolff Olins

This is simple, direct and sharply written. The language feels like a direct response to Russell Brand’s apolitical stance – unapologetic, urgent and even a bit ugly. It deliberately hints at handmade banners, with its paintstrokes and the ragged blocky font. The ad is trying to conjure up some imagery of protest and marches, but it’s doing so in a gentle way – more Farrow & Ball than Jamie Reid. It may be a bit like wearing a brand new Barbour to a rally but it’s trying and winning. There’s a strong message here – no fluff, no metaphor, no Westminster in-jokes, just clear point of view.

Ukip

Ukip

Johnny Hornby, founder, The&Partnership

I'm not sure that poster tells us anything we don't already know about Ukip, which is that they are the anti-immigration party. I think Farage needed to widen his message.

Ukip refer to themselves as the People’s Army. Farage was trying to build a picture in people's minds of an ‘anti-everybody else’ strategy. If what he was intending to do was try to galvanise people all over the country, if you got that as a brief as an agency, that would immediately lead you into a socially driven campaign. You'd be starting movements, you'd want shareable content. And I've seen none of it.

SNP

SNP

Billy Faithfull, executive creative director, WCRS

There’s always something of the intern about political advertising. An MP’s pun, art-directed by accountants, designed in PowerPoint. Not so Nicola Sturgeon’s direct approach with a highly original take on politics: a vow. You have to respect the lack of cheap shots at the other leaders, though. Less so the awkward power pose, and the backdrop texture presumably called ‘Essence of Burning Citadel’ in the 2015 Photographers’ Backdrop Catalogue. In an effort to shake off the image of hordes gathering at the border, I asked a Scottish copywriter what he thought. “I like the logo.” Enough said.

 

Gary Robinson, executive creative director, FCB Inferno

The SNP poster stays out of the ring as far as bashing the opposition goes and opts to show the brilliant (and somewhat refreshing) Nicola Sturgeon giving us her pledge. At least it has a POV, but as a poster it’s dull, dull, dull – which means it won’t get much coverage and is unlikely to engage an audience outside the Westminster Circus.

This feature was first published in the most recent issue of The Drum.