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How Margaret Thatcher transformed the world of modern political communications


By Jason Stone, Editor of David Reviews

April 9, 2013 | 5 min read

As many of her obituaries have made clear, Margaret Thatcher is largely remembered as a conviction politician. Because of this, it's easy to overlook the hugely significant role she played in the development of modern political communication.

Thatcher had been Leader of the Opposition for three years when she took the bold decision to ask Saatchi & Saatchi to help the Tories win the next election. Although individuals from the advertising world had previously offered their service on a voluntary basis, this was the first time that an agency had secured a British political party as a client. In August 1978, the agency founded by Charles and Maurice Saatchi produced a poster that's widely regarded to be the single most significant piece of political communication in British history. It showed a long, snaking queue and a three-word headline - 'Labour Isn't Working'. Interestingly, Thatcher herself proved more adept than the fabled admen at recognising the poster's impact. Charles Saatchi had rejected 'Labour Isn't Working' and it was only included in a presentation put together for the Tory leader when Andrew Rutherford - who authored it - secretly added it. Thatcher is said to have labelled the poster "wonderful" as soon as she saw it, arguably demonstrating that she had a better instinct for political communication than those employed to provide it. The sensation provoked by 'Labour Isn't Working' helped to persuade Prime Minister James Callaghan that he should delay the general election until the following year. No one can say how Labour would have fared in an autumn 1978 election but it's certain that they'd have done better than they did the following May when the Prime Minister's authority had been shredded by the 'winter of discontent'.No one could deny though that Saatchi & Saatchi had played a pivotal role in Thatcher's election win - certainly not the new Prime Minister herself who formed enduring relationships with the two brothers as well as with Tim Bell - a senior figure at the agency whose advertising and PR career was defined by his closeness to Thatcher... indeed, it was Bell who announced the news of her death yesterday. Although Alastair Campbell is often said to have been the first British 'spin doctor', this dubious honour really belongs to Bernard Ingham - Margaret Thatcher's formidable press secretary. The Yorkshireman became a notorious and much-feared figure with Downing Street because of his willingness to use off-the-record briefings to criticise Government ministers who weren't toeing the line. Ingham was a career civil servant and should have fulfilled his role with the neutrality expected of his colleagues, but with Thatcher's approval he became a Rottweiler responsible for protecting the Prime Minister's political interests in a fashion that made a mockery of any notion of impartiality. One of the defining policies of Margaret Thatcher's time in office was the decision to sell a number of state-owned institutions, and some of the communication used to persuade ordinary Britons to become shareholders of the newly-formed companies has gone down in advertising history.

The most memorable of these was a campaign for British Gas made by BMP which launched a nationwide campaign to track down 'Sid' - a fictional character who needed to be told about the opportunity to make a fast buck by buying shares in the privatised company when the government sold it.The real importance of what was being communicated by this and the other privatisation campaigns was the idea that stocks and shares were no longer the domain of an exclusive elite. The ideological principle that lay behind this notion also brought about the discounted sale of council-owned property to householders that led directly to the 1980s property bubble.

But not all government communication during the Thatcher era was connected to financial opportunity. The shadow of AIDS loomed large in the 1980s and the COI reflected this in a notorious awareness campaign that urged us not to "die of ignorance". John Hurt's portentous timbre made it look like the opening sequence of a post-apocalyptic drama and it famously terrified many who watched it. Given the seriousness of the HIV epidemic, perhaps this was the jolt that some people needed, but it probably helped to provoke prejudice against groups perceived to be vulnerable to the virus as much as it scared anyone into avoiding unprotected sex.

The term 'Thatcher's children' is sometimes applied to politicians like David Cameron and George Osborne who are wedded to her ideologically, but it can also be used to describe a certain type who emerged during the 1980s. These were the greedy young men who made 'loads of money' from the deregulated financial services industry. Advertising has had a lot of fun with these characters over the years, never more so than in a 1995 commercial for Audi which mercilessly lampooned this archetype. If - as many of her detractors are suggesting - Margaret Thatcher faces divine retribution for the perceived sins of her premiership then perhaps her destiny is to watch this commercial on an endless loop... an eternally foul reminder of the true nature of her legacy.
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