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General election 2015: From Labour's stone tablet to Cameron's 'brain fade' ​– why party politics leaves little room for creativity

David Cameron's 'brain fade'

This article is one of a series from global marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi assessing key aspects of the main political parties’ digital strategies in the run up to the General Election.

Mainstream party politics is cagey, negative and creatively empty-handed, says Simon Gill, chief creative officer UK at DigitasLBi, so we can’t be surprised the same is true of its advertising

You don’t need to be an avid follower of general election advertising campaigns to know that this election isn’t being driven by creativity. In a world crying out for radical thinking on so many fronts, we’ve seen some of the cagiest, most non-committal, creativity-deficient electioneering anyone can recall.

But the same sense of reheated thinking and creative stagnation can be seen in the parties’ ads too. From Labour’s ‘The Doctor Can’t See You Now’ poster – a horribly belated heckle pastiching the winding queue of the Tories’ 1979 ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ ad – to at least four separate Tory ads featuring a little Ed Miliband sheltering in an SNP pocket or as a puppet on its strings, this has not been one for the portfolios of those involved.

It is, of course, a depressing truth that various factors seem to mitigate against creativity in modern politics. From a purely advertising perspective, there’s a clear reluctance to be seen spending significant money on slick ad campaigns, so we can expect the production values to clunk a bit. But this is also an age of coalitions, of voter cynicism, of dark political choices and instant backlash, and no politician wants to be caught dead in support of a position that might come back to haunt their days in power.

So what we get is fudging, bet-hedging, unverifiable numbers, dated satires of old ads and, above all, low-rent swipes at everyone else - none of which makes for strong, positive creative messaging.

Some of the attack work, when cleverly done, provokes a certain admiration. A late-arriving Labour mock-up of David Cameron’s email inbox came with a 16-page deconstruction of George Osborne’s alleged spending plans, masquerading cleverly as an official Tory memo. The same party’s election broadcasts starring Martin Freeman and Jo Brand seem to come from a place of genuine conviction.

But when the truth about power is increasingly clouded and obscured, the real problem is that we can’t easily believe what we are being told by politicians, and it takes more than a good ad to fix that.

Undaunted, DigitasLBi's creatives selected one piece from each party for appraisal:

Conservatives

The Conservatives are well-placed to deliver creativity. After all, chairman Grant Shapps’ alter ego was a bona-fide internet marketing guru, and the party’s budget dwarfs those of its rivals. Sadly though, a search for creativity yields little beyond press coverage of alleged tinkering with Wikipedia pages. From the earliest days of the campaign, the Tories have indulged in negative campaigning something for which even its supporters have criticised them and their SNP poster series is a particularly unimaginative, cheap example.

Jon Attaway, head of copy

Labour

Tablets have played a big role in the Labour campaign. Surprisingly though the party decided to focus on the 8ft tall biblical kind rather than the rather more modern handy sized digital version. A memo gone wrong? Despite a lot of pre-Election hype about the party’s digital campaigning capacity, the best they’ve been able to muster was the push which – while laudable – was perhaps most notable for the fact that it happened in almost total isolation. The party may of course still be the biggest beneficiary of social media if Russell Brand’s last minute endorsement on his YouTube channel The Trews proves popular with younger voters.

Stuart Aitken, lead content strategist

Greens

Strong and consistent design, excellent video, clear-cut policies, even a crowd-funded campaign that accepts Bitcoin - the Greens are about as creative as British political parties currently get. Although their mini manifestois a poor translation from print to digital (and a general eyesore), they more than make amends with their YouTube hit. Harnessing wit and parody to sing the shortcomings of the opposition, they’ve hands-down won the political LOL-wars.

Sam Clements, copywriter; Adam Hunt, designer; and Imogen Nicole Reeves, digital designer

Liberal Democrats

Most of the Lib Dems’ creative work lacks a clear definition of their own ideals, choosing instead to focus on the faults of the two leading parties, which feels like a weak stance. One uncharacteristically sassy piece of work is their ongoing series of 404 pages. In February, these were swiping at Ed Balls (‘just like Labour’s plan for the economy, this page doesn’t exist’) and lately they’ve been having fun with David Cameron’s ‘brain fade’ incident (‘just like David Cameron’s loyalty to Aston Villa, this page doesn’t exist’). But couldn’t they have related the put-down to their own policies to reach undecided voters?

Gabrielle Choo, Copywriter

Plaid Cymru

The first problem for Plaid Cymru is that their URL isn’t plaidcymru.co.uk or even plaidcymru.com but this: www.partyof.wales; which is surely a massive #FAIL when thinking about SEO. From a creative standpoint, I haven’t seen a site designed like this on purpose since the late-90s. The green and yellow is potentially a nice touch if you’re South African or Australian but doesn’t exactly smack of Wales. The daffodil icon is cute but looks like the Marie Curie terminal illness logo. Surely the dragon is a better symbol of Wales and politics?

Kay McMahon, lead content strategist

SNP

The SNP’s website looks like a relic from a decade ago and its creative is generally lacklustre, but a digital campaign around its women’s pledge is easily one of its more accomplished pieces of content. The images effectively display the party’s values, the copy is digestible and straightforward with short, snappy hash tags. The designs use muted colours while still being bold, composed and memorable, and as perfect squares, they work within the image formats of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Dan Parry, copywriter and Yuri Yoshimura, designer

UKIP

From the stark typography to the mish-mash of designs, UKIP’s creative output and messaging are inconsistent, reflecting what the party is: a political newcomer with plenty of rough edges. While their poster campaigns are provocative and get them the media coverage they were designed to, a lot of their other communications – this error-strewn flier or this misspelt constituency – lack rigour. Even the 90-second manifesto on the website comes not from UKIP itself but from a national newspaper.

Jim Haryott, copywriter; Andrea Wirth, senior designer; and Richard Morgan, art director

To sum up then, this has not been a creative campaign in any sense, though isolated gems point at what the parties might have done.

DigitasLBi has also carried out a social data study which reveals surprising facts about the political parties and their supporters. For more information visit www.wearewhatsnext.com