Opinion: Perspective - It's time for UK's political advertising to grow up

By Larissa Vince, larissa.vince@haymarket.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 October 2009 12:00AM

The usual row has broken out between the Government and the Tories over political advertising (page 1). I say usual, because I can remember the same old accusations coming up again and again before previous elections.

Now, though, this kind of behind-the-scenes Commons sniping feels completely outdated. It also highlights how desperately out-of-touch all the main political parties are when it comes to communicating with the voting public.

There's no need to remind anyone how brilliant the Obama US election campaign was. And fair enough, the US political parties are funded in a completely different way to their (in monetary terms) poor relations in the UK. But nevertheless, the apparent refusal of central political parties to engage or communicate with the UK electorate on any sort of ongoing basis is starting to look like a foolish and potentially damaging decision.

Political parties aren't toilet tissue brands. More than any other "advertiser", they need to get away from the old idea of broadcasting a message in one short burst (in their case, just pre-election) and start thinking longer-term. It's no longer enough to rely on a big poster ad and try to drum up a bit of PR around it.

Generally speaking, the Tories seem to have recognised this a bit better than Labour. They launched a website a week or so ago, myconservatives.com, which although pretty limited in its scope, did at least attempt to galvanise support (albeit among existing party members) and drum up a bit of online fundraising at the same time.

There is also more of a sense that they are thinking about a longer-term dialogue. A lot of it smacks of bandwagon-jumping (the latest this week is an ad on Spotify, for heaven's sake), but they are, in a small way, trying to engage with an electorate that is spending a lot of time gathering information and making decisions about things online.

Politically speaking, of course, any suggestion that a party is spending money on advertising is going to be a hot potato. But advertising no longer has to be an (obviously) expensive thing to do. Take everyone's favourite meerkat - while I'm entirely sure that the cost to VCCP of maintaining such a real-time conversation with consumers is pretty huge, the media cost (TV ads aside) is not massive.

Political parties have such exposure on TV and in the press that they can afford to take the broadcast element out of any communications campaign. Lucky them.

The problem is that they seem to be so taken up with firefighting (Labour) and mudslinging (the Tories) that they've forgotten how to think longer-term about communications. It's just such a wasted opportunity. I really hope that Euro RSCG and Saatchi & Saatchi manage the Herculean task of chivvying them out of their apathy and that we see some decent, genuinely engaging UK political advertising at last.

Facebook "stalking", checking your other half's text messages - this isn't an indictment of the state of my marriage, rather an observation that these days, when information is just a click away, suspicion seems easier to come by than trust. It's a big problem, and one that the Advertising Association is attempting to meet head-on with a new initiative, "front foot" (Hotlines, page 36).

It's asking advertisers and agencies to chip in to fund research to refute the negative press around advertising's role in alcohol abuse and obesity and to try to restore public trust in marketing.

I'm not convinced that everything about it is right (it feels a bit reactive). I'm also concerned that the amount of funding the AA is trying to get out of agencies, proportionate to what it's asking from advertisers, is too high.

But as a concept, surely it's one that everyone can agree to support. After all, anything that might shut the critics up has to come as a welcome change.

- Claire Beale is away.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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