The appearance of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown in Labour’s Anthony Minghella-directed party political election broadcast marked a change in political advertising. Hollywood direction is nothing new, but the soft-focus, almost voyeuristic style was, and the attempt to paint over the cracks in Blair’s relationship with Brown was certainly unusual. According to recent research in London-based Marketing, 2005 saw the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – send out double the amount of direct mailings in the first two months of this year than in the whole of 2004. By using these targeted means, and investing a good proportion of their advertising spend on them, it shows political parties are becoming more sophisticated with their communications with consumers.
They are not, however, becoming as sophisticated with their communications with the media. A request to the Liberal Democrats Scottish office for their advertising work to date was met with the response that “they weren’t advertising”. A further call to the office in London gained the work you see here for the party. M&C Saatchi were more than happy to give The Drum a breakdown of its work so far, while the SNP’s agency, Talented, supplied the most creative out of all the agencies. A request to TBWA’s London office for work already run was declined due to “the feature appearing before the Election, and the influence it could have over voters”. However, for fairness, The Drum acquired it from elsewhere. Here, Mairi Clark asks five independent judges to give their views on the election advertising this time round. Our judges are:
Ian McAteer: managing director at The Union and chairman of the Scottish Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. He has worked on the Tory account while at Saatchis and the Scottish Labour account at The Union.
Euan Carmichael: creative director at Ten Alps MTD. His advertising agency worked on the Scottish Conservative’s advertising account in 2001.
John Crawford: strategy director at Halogen Communications and a former communications manager for the Scottish Conservatives.
Kevin Bird: joint creative director at Family. He has worked on both the Scottish Labour and SNP accounts in recent years.
Gerry Farrell: creative director at The Leith Agency and one of the most awarded creative directors in Scotland.
Managing Director, The Union
In eight years at Saatchis I was inevitably close to the ethos behind the agency’s approach to political advertising: a dash of cleverness, a huge dollop of simplicity, an insight into what the voters were thinking, and an unerring ability to go for the jugular.
Much of the Saatchi poster work was iconic and has now passed into the lore of electioneering. TBWA’s campaigns for Labour for me have continued in the same vein: William Hague with Thatcher’s hairdo was a masterstroke, and the theme of reminding us of the ghosts of Tories past has proved very effective.
In reviewing the current set of posters I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. I’m not necessarily pointing the finger at the quality of the thinking or the creative insight. In the ‘good old days’ politics was about competing ideologies, left versus right, free market versus state control. By stark contrast, this election has been received with rampaging apathy. The reality is that in policy terms there is very little between the parties. The differences are wafer thin on most issues – everyone will run the economy in basically the same way – and there is a desperate hunt for areas of dispute: asylum, fox hunting, regiments, etc. What’s more, this election seems to lack a really strong ‘waterline issue’; the single issue that is being put before the Nation.
Having said that, what did my hastily convened Union focus group think? (I’m a firm believer in listening to the consumer.)
Let’s start with Labour. Everyone agreed that the key insight, a fear of past Tory misdemeanours, and the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ message, touched a nerve. Quibbles with the art direction – “Why make it hard to read?” – the poster featuring Thatcher and Major was felt to be the strongest by far – “Thatcher still gives me the creeps.”
The Tory campaign created more debate. A majority felt that the “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” was a smart insight and thought it would get through to people. It was also praised for being issue specific; the executions on schools, police and prison sentences were felt to be the strongest. The Tories seem to be appealing to a middle England, old-fashioned values, and a return to a time when things were done ‘proper’. They almost, but not quite, pull it off.
The most polite thing to say about the Liberal Democrats work was that it is functional. “Why use Charles Kennedy?” “I’d never read all that.” Unlike the big two parties, the Lib Dems don’t seem to have any real consumer insight. There is no attempt to find a nerve and then push it hard. Without this any communication is doomed to be, at best, workmanlike.
And the Scottish National Party? Oh, dear. We were really looking forward to some strong work here. The SNP does, at least, have a very clear positioning. It stands for independence. Did the advertising say this? Hardly. The images seemed clichÃ©d, the puns are woeful, and the tone childish. It was not screaming to be taken seriously. The best of the crop was the “Joke McConnell” execution, on the basis that it raised a smile. The worst was the Sean Connery phone call – “Yeah, he’ll be calling from his tax haven.” (Some also questioned whether the quality of the work was down to the agency, or to the brief it was taking.)
And how was my group going to vote on 5 May? A strong Labour turnout. The Tory contingent seemed rather disillusioned. No-one could see Michael Howard moving into No. 10.
Creative Director, The Leith Agency
Do you know what really pisses me off about political ads? They’re not obliged to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful” like the rest of us advertisers. Just wanted to get that off my chest. Now I can move on.
The SNP kick things off with some good old knockabout negative ads.
“Joke McConnell” is a well-aimed two-word pun, but slagging-off the First Minister’s sexy wee kiltie makes the whole joke a bit past its tell-by date. “Scotland’s Oil” rears up again like a ghost from the 60s with Blair as a rather unlikely JR Ewing. The phone call from Shir Shean is a clever idea (although I shushpect he won’t be calling in pershon).
New dad Charles Kennedy wants to come across all noble and dignified in his “Real Alternative” poster. But he just looks like he’s filling his nappy. The “We oppose/we propose” structure of the press work is honest and clear. Unfortunately it also feels dull and worthy.
Labour’s ads are all over the place. Some ads boast about its past achievements in a tone that’s more ‘Tone’ than Gordon, with flashy, zingy art direction. Others hark back to our gloomy past under the Tories. No marks for branded cut-through.
The Tories do that job much better. They obviously liked their creatives’ magic marker roughs so much they decided to run them hot off the pad and bugger the typographer (not literally, of course). Despite these ads having the best art direction and the common touch, they’re only preaching to the converted not reaching out for a new franchise.
And that line “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” How sinister is that? Brrrr! I’m definitely not voting for them.
Creative Director, Ten Alps MTD
Firstly, the best thing I’ve seen during this election campaign was Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo doing Road to Amarillo on BBC’s This Week, what a hoot. As for political party advertising, apart from the odd poster I haven’t seen much of this work on the street or in the press.
Labour’s campaign theme seems to be about reminding us what a mess the Tories made and how well Labour is doing. By using retro type and imagery and past prime ministers it is hardly ‘forward not back’ advertising, but then, does it need to be? “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” is the Conservative’s line, if that thinking is ‘let’s just print the roughs from the tissue meeting’, then, Yes.
The Lib Dems at least have tried to be positive and actually tell you what they would do if they were voted into power, however do they really only have the one shot of Charles Kennedy. Finally, some of the SNP work is just baffling, I don’t understand the point of knocking MSPs when it’s a General Election.
John Crawford, Strategy Director,
In my view, negative advertising definitely does work for the simple reason that I believe that governments are voted out of office, not in. If you look at the best, most memorable, political advertising over the years it has all been based on a negative message: “Labour isn’t working” (Tory, 1997), “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” (Tory, 1992), “Bliar” (Tory, 1999), “Follyrood” (Tory, 2003), “VAT Man” (Labour, 1992), “Divorce is expensive” (Labour, 1999), “Be afraid, be very afraid” (Labour, 2001), “Crime is rising under Labour”, (SNP ad trailer, 2003). An ideal election poster is something that strikes a chord with the viewer – voters will rarely remember a positive message and, perhaps, more importantly the media would be unlikely to cover its launch. Looking at all the parties’ campaigns this time around they obviously agree with this view. This time around Labour’s campaign seems entirely based on preventing a return to the “bad old days” under the Tories, The Tories are concentrating on broken promises and lack of trust in Tony Blair. The Lib Dems, however, are branding themselves as the ‘real alternative’ which is an excellent way to make my point as they are getting little coverage themselves.
Joint Creative Director, Family
On political advertising, I feel like I've kind of been there, seen it, got the campaign t-shirt, the pen, the mug, the key ring, and, of course, the William Hague baseball hat.
I've done three election campaigns in total and count them as some of the most challenging and interesting briefs I've ever worked on. They can be great fun, but they're also bloody hard work.
The staple diet of any political campaign is the poster. Every election campaign for the last 20 years is only usually remembered for one poster - the 'killer' poster. The poster that seems to capture the moment, the mood of the nation. And, in the minds of the party faithful, swings the campaign their way.
To me it's never been about whether a political poster is positive or negative,
it's about whether it's relevant, whether it works. When your poster hits a nerve, when a member of the opposition has to get up and defend their position, and when your candidate, your client, is seen by the electorate to be leading the debate, then it works.
My observations on this year's selection so far?
Well Labour, it would appear, have actually got something to crow about. The lowest employment in 29 years, the lowest mortgage rates in 40 years. Both good positive messages. But, these posters come across as self congratulatory. Not really dealing with what people believe is the much bigger issue - can they be trusted?
It is difficult. When you're in government, nobody really wants to hear what you've done, they want to bitch about what you haven't done. Which is why, let's face it, opposition politics is so much easier. Labour's 'Forward not Back' slogan however is back on much safer territory for them, and is probably their strongest weapon. I eagerly await the sequel to the magnificent "Maggie's Hair on Hague's Head."
They may need it.
The Tories have a series of very straight forward messages, which all appear to be simple common sense. Even if they are a little dull, it's a sound strategy.
(But can't help feeling that the 'You paid the tax, so where are the public services?' campaign seemed to do it more succinctly....but then I would, wouldn't I?)
Appearing to empathise with the electorate works. And it's great. Right up until the voter eventually asks the killer question...'so what are you actually going to do about it?' I’m not sure they have an answer. Credibility is still the Tories' biggest problem.
Maybe they should do "Bliar" again, that would work.
Oh, and the answer to the question 'Are you thinking what Michael Howard and Anne Widdecombe are thinking?' is......probably not.
The Liberal Democrat posters are very clear and concise. The 'We oppose...We propose' format works, but becomes rather tedious and a little monotonous. It feels more like a leaflet drop than a poster that's going to change the way the nation votes, which is what the Liberal Democrats really need to be doing. Interesting that Mr Kennedy features so prominently though.
A poster with either Michael Howard or Tony Blair at the moment, would be seen as a potential vote loser.
If political posters have to do anything, then it is to engage people. The SNP campaign feels like it will definitely engage the party faithful and all the party activists. Undecided voters, however, may well find these a little lightweight. Comical treatments can appear to be like in-house jokes, and often leave people cold. The SNP need to convince people that they really are serious contenders. I'm not sure these will do it.
It's early days in the campaign though, and I’m sure there will be more opportunities. Analysts are predicting the lowest turn out in the history of elections. So, if we want people to vote, and I think everybody should use their vote, we need to talk to them properly. We need to engage them. We need the great images, we need the stopper headlines. We need the killer posters.
In the words of Delia Smith....."Let's be havin' you".