7 Jun 2014

Will advertising swing the 2015 election?

Advertising has traditionally helped politicians to cement their ideas and given campaigns a clear direction. But what role will it play in the 2015 general election?

There was a time when political advertising comprised two simple messages. “Britain is OK, don’t let the others ruin it,” the party of government would scream. “Time for a change,” claimed the opposition.

With their messages emblazoned on billboards up and down the country, this formula paved the way for some of Britain’s most memorable political advertising.

The 1978 “Labour isn’t working” poster, created by Saatchi & Saatchi (above), compounded a prevailing insecurity about job prospects. It is widely seen as instrumental in bringing down James Callaghan’s government and catapulting Margaret Thatcher into power a year later.

From that moment, advertising stamped its mark on British politics and was used time and again to devastating effect.

In 1992 a Tory poster putting a £1,250 figure to “Labour’s tax bombshell” tapped into a prevailing fear of change in a climate where voters already felt financially stretched. John Major defied all opinion polls and remained in power.

While advertising alone may not have single-handedly swung elections, it certainly helped cement prevailing ideas and often gave a political campaign a clear message and momentum.

Picture: The Conservatives launched their first poster of the 2015 election last September, playing on the infamous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster of 1978.

Advertising today

But are we likely to see that happen again in 2015? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. Advertising’s role has changed since the days of concepts that were designed inside some of London’s most glittering agencies.

Gone too are the old-world binary battles between a party of government and its principle opponent. Just look at the current electoral landscape. With polls suggesting a tight race between Labour and the Conservatives, the political anomaly of Ukip, and the real prospect of another hung parliament, the traditional ads that framed the elections of the 70s, 80s and 90s are consigned to history.

In its place is work that is more nuanced and experimental. Labour’s recent “Un-credible Shrinking Man” ad portrayed Nick Clegg as a subservient puppet of the coalition government. Its objective was clear: reinforce why Lib Dems should feel utterly disillusioned when casting their vote in 2015 and win back traditional Labour voters that may have defected in the last election.

There were differing opinions on its level of success. You can judge for yourself here:

Almost immediately the Lib Dems hit back with an ad portraying Ed Miliband as silent on the threat from Ukip. In the old days, advertising agencies would be hampered by longer lead-times; now thanks to technology, those windows have narrowed from days into minutes. It is just one part of the onslaught of digital media, which has changed the scope and consumption of advertising.

The onslaught of digital media

While digital advertising has been around for decades, many cite the Obama influence, which widely changed the way we think about political advertising and its capabilities. Its power first became clear in 2008, after a shrewd campaign that used digital technology to engage swathes of the young and disenfranchised across America while rebutting Republican smears and raising millions in donations.

In 2012, the Obama administration sharpened its credentials even further, using big data and algorithms to re-engage supporters.

Britain may not be this advanced yet, but it is certainly inching closer. In 2010 the British race was watched intently via social media. Expect to see more in the next 10 months, especially with campaign wizards like David Axelrod, Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina flown in to help harness each party’s digital potential.

It is, however, a medium fraught with risks. “Strong ideas will spread like wildfire but weak ones will be parodied and pilloried, without the parties being able to do much about it,” Andy Nairn, a partner of Lucky Generals, which produced Labour’s advertising, told Channel 4 News.

“Mistakes will be made and politicians will have to accept that they will not be able to control everything – because abstaining will only make things worse.”

There is no shortage of examples. Grant Shapps’ post-budget bingo ad, released moments after the announcement of the March budget, lacked the rigorous strategic testing and found itself pilloried on social media reinforcing perceptions of the Conservatives as the out-of-touch party of privilege.

Cutting through?

Yet for all the drama it generates online, does digital actually effect votes? Not greatly, recent evidence suggests, with the voting base among young people still desperately low (44 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds turned out to vote in 2010).

Yet it can help drive engagement, while digital media has less regulatory red-tape than television, leading to more creative and engaging work than the traditionally tedious party political broadcast of old.

Lord Bell, credited with leading the advertising strategy that led to three elections for Margaret Thatcher, insists advertising still plays a role in politics, not quite in the way of old. “Rather than a mainstream event, it’ll now be like the background noise,” he told Channel 4 News. “Ultimately the direction of the election will be decided the leadership debates, the publication of the manifestos and the personalities of the leaders.”

Robert Senior, EMEA chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, agrees. “Our politics are becoming increasingly presidential, placing even greater emphasis on the cult of personality,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Gratuitous cheap gags, like the recent Shrinking and Silent Man, are more a peripheral valve for inexperienced politicians to vent their spleen. Hopefully the election will serve up more wit, substance and dignity.”