Brand Blair vs Howard's Way

Negative ads, low media spend and the lack of coherent branding mark this election, Larissa Bannister writes, while Harriet Harman and Archie Norman review the Labour and Tory tactics.

The big story of the 2005 general election, at least as far as advertising is concerned, is that media spend during the campaign period looks likely to be a great deal less than at the last election.

DM, telephone canvassing and e-mail have all played increased roles, but poster activity has been considerably reduced this year, and almost nothing has been spent on press.

So closely have the main parties focused on a targeted approach that many voters will barely have come across any election advertising at all, Winston Fletcher, a professor of marketing at the University of Westminster and an ex-chairman of the Advertising Association, says.

"The parties have identified something like 150 marginal seats but, unless you live in them, you will have received almost no direct marketing because none of them care about you. It's a function of the focus on databases this year that two-thirds of the country has barely been exposed to election ads," he explains.

Falling party membership has been one reason behind the move to direct, according to Richard Morris, the DDB business development director and a volunteer for the Liberal Democrats. "Fewer members means fewer Labour activists than before, fewer people to knock on doors," he says. "It sounds odd, but the Tories' ageing membership may have had the same effect. The Lib Dems, on the other hand, need to be seen as credible and one way for them to do that is to increase spend above the line."

"The issue isn't DM itself, which is an excellent medium," Fletcher says.

"It's the fact that all three parties have identified the floating voters and those poor people will be getting so much pressure that it's hard to know what the outcome will be. The likelihood is that it will be a no-score draw."

There has been some poster activity from the main parties and, according to Fletcher, the Conservatives' "racist" poster is the best of a pretty weak bunch. "Nearly every election has a poster that goes down as the one that encapsulates the feel of the election. The Tory 'racist' ad is the single ad that is creatively outstanding and that captures the zeitgeist."

Labour in particular has failed to adopt a coherent brand and visual style for its campaign, Fletcher adds. "They have that flower-power thing, the warning sign and the child execution, which uses ordinary type," he says. "Most of the Tory ads do use the same 'handwriting' style but the one featuring Tony Blair and Gordon Brown uses a traditional typeface. It could be that this is deliberate, so people don't see posters and think they have seen the ad before. But compared with what parties have done in the past and with how we approach brand advertising generally, it's an approach that is hard to defend."

According to Morris, the Tories' efforts are at least providing a consistent message, although it's debatable what its effect will be. "They (the Conservatives) are clearly spending quite a lot and, whether you agree with it or not, it is a clear message," he says. "The line is strong and designed to resonate but it does speak to the core audience of Tory voters and not to undecided voters. This has been reflected in the opinion polls, which have shown little or no movement to the Conservatives."

No party believes a poster will convince people to change how they vote, but one key role for election ads is to lead the news agenda. If an ad can create a media buzz, that disproportionately increases its effectiveness.

Most of the buzz this year has been around the Tories' campaigns, particularly the poster calling Blair a liar. The "racist" ad generated its own coverage - nearly every Tory poster in Tottenham bearing the slogan "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration" was vandalised almost as soon as it went up. In Brighton, a "racist" poster hung opposite a Hindu temple made headlines after it was condemned by worshippers for provoking racial hatred.

This absence of great agenda-setting advertising is undoubtedly another consequence of the targeted approach. Instead, parties have turned to the telephone and the internet as methods of reaching swing voters.

All three parties have used e-mail marketing, the Liberal Democrats in particular sending out almost daily bulletins of party news. Labour has used e-mail to counter negative press reports, sending out one message the minute the election date was announced and another to underline its claim to be "the party of the NHS" following the news that 69-year-old Margaret Dixon had her operation cancelled seven times.

The negative tone adopted by many political ads is one thing that hasn't changed. The dilution of brand Blair meant that Tony didn't even appear on the cover of the Labour manifesto, while more Labour and Tory ads feature the opposing party's leader than feature their own.

Although the Labour line is 'Forward not back', all of their recent posters just talk about how terrible life was under the Tories," Morris says. "You can see the hand of Alastair Campbell in that - just a couple of months ago, they were running positive posters about low interest rates."

Last week, the Tories unveiled a campaign that went further than any election ad has ever done, by explicitly branding the Labour leader a liar. Next to a picture of a shifty-looking Blair on a red background, the poster read: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election." A couple of days later, a leaked memo revealed Blair was told just two weeks before the Iraq war that it could be illegal, and the resulting media furore went beyond the Conservatives' wildest dreams.

The Lib Dems have been the only party to lead with a positive approach, perhaps because neither of the two main parties has wasted much time on criticising them. Charles Kennedy even appears in his own party's ads, which included a rare print campaign called "10 good reasons".

The problem with positive advertising is that everyone agrees on what the objectives are - good education, health and so on - so you end up with what Fletcher calls "motherhood and apple pie advertising".

He adds:"In war, the best way to encourage the troops is to tell them bad things about the enemy," he says. "If you can persuade people that the enemy is a risk, that is more likely to make them go out and fight for you."

LABOUR CANDIDATE HARRIET HARMAN CRITIQUES THE TORY AD STRATEGY

Alighting from the plane at Cornwall's Newquay airport, the first sign of political activity that meets passengers is an enormous Tory poster about immigration. I was down there to campaign for the sitting Labour MP, Candy Atherton, a friend and colleague, who has held the seat for the past eight years. Her constituency is 99 per cent white.

As we drove from the airport, I asked her about immigration. She pointed to the brilliant yellow fields which we were passing and said they were daffodils waiting to be picked by migrant labour - mostly Poles. Without the Poles, she told me, the daffodils would just rot in the fields.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking about the Tory immigration posters?

Up north, the immigration posters loom over the mums collecting their children from a new nursery in Durham. Not one of the mothers chatting to me mentions Michael Howard, immigration, Tony Blair or the war in Iraq; they are more interested in primary schools and the need for more buses.

They raised a lot of concerns with me - not one of which has found itself anywhere near a Tory poster.

Next, to Brighton - where this time the Tory immigration poster is next to a Hindu temple. A mistake, I presume.

In this election, I have listened to voters' concerns in 20 marginal constituencies around the country. The Tory immigration posters are having an impact - but not the one the Tories intended. They are reminding the ethnic minority voters in many marginal seats that the Tories do not see them as hospital workers and owners of businesses, but as a problem. It is reminding them to vote Labour. And it is reminding voters why the Tories are still the nasty party.

Yes, I hate the Tory immigration posters. Not because they will pull votes off Labour - I do not think that they will - but because what they certainly will do is make black people in this country feel unwelcome.

The voters must be confused about what the real Tory Party stands for. While Theresa May announces at a Tory Party conference that they are no longer the nasty party, as soon as an election nears they revert to type.

Voters know what we stand for and we're going out to meet them. Reminding them of the improvement in the economy and investment in vital services.

Our "school gate mum" campaign of leafleting and talking to voters aims to refresh the parts that pages of direct mail and menacing posters do not reach.

The problem with the Tories' advertising campaign is not the marketing but the message. There is no clear message why people should vote Tory.

Harriet Harman is the Labour candidate for Camberwell and Peckham

FORMER CONSERVATIVE MP ARCHIE NORMAN ON LABOUR'S EFFORTS

The capacity of politicians to blow prodigious amounts of money entirely unproductively on worthless advertising campaigns has always staggered me. There are conspicuous examples on both sides of the fence - John Major's "devil eyes" campaign, which culminated in the risible weeping lion, cost well over £10 million. In 1997, however, New Labour ran a campaign of considerable merit. There was clear branding throughout. It was positive in tone. It was intended to convey a consistent theme against the background of an unpopular Conservative government: that it was "time for a change" and New Labour really was "new".

This year's Labour campaign will not go down in history as one of the greats. Most of all, it will be remembered for the early blunders depicting Michael Howard as Fagin and Michael and Oliver Letwin as pigs with wings.

But the underlying flaw is that it has been themeless. It is as if Labour has forgotten the brand or perhaps feels that it is too closely associated with Tony Blair. I doubt if most voters can remember a single strapline, claim or image. The prevailing tone has been tactical, negative and rather tired. Even "Forward not back" has a peculiar negativity to it. Its main message is "not back".

Part of the problem is that both parties are trying to do something that no normal consumer marketer would attempt: relaunch a brand in four weeks using posters and direct mail to shift an impression formed over the previous four years. The Labour campaign started far too late and has changed format far too often. The negativity cuts across the brand message. In other words, to an utterly cynical audience political advertising through juvenile posters says more about the type of people Labour are than whatever the content has to say about Howard. Yet if "New Labour" still stands for anything in voters' minds, it is a set of positive commitments to public services. Social justice, fairness, contemporary Britain: where can I find any of that in a poster of pigs with wings?

Unless political advertising has an overriding theme repeated again and again and unless it resonates with what the voters see on television every night, it is worthless. Political branding is closely intertwined with the personality of the leader. And therein the Labour quandary: the research shows that Blair is no longer an asset. What we are seeing is an attempt to market the party without marketing the leader. Most Labour candidates do not even have him on their election address. By contrast, six million people will have seen Blair and Gordon Brown visiting Longbridge on the Six O'Clock News. That image alone is worth the entire poster campaign.

The revival of the Brown/Blair partnership, however sincere it may be, is one of the few strong statements to emerge from Labour's marketers.

And it cost nothing.

Another irritating piece of political marketing is those phoney press conferences in party headquarters with Blair standing at a podium. Both sides do it. Why? It looks false, institutional and unreal. The Labour attempt to show the whole team lined up in a row was worth a try, but it looked uncomfortably staged. A team is only a team if people look as if they would quite like to work together. Groups of politicians on a stage must trigger a mass rush for the remote control.

I quite liked the spiriting up of dear old Bill Clinton on a wide screen at the Labour rally. It was good endorsement, ironically from someone British audiences also used to distrust. But he is a master and he is not president Bush, so now we love him.

This election will also go down in history, however, as the time British politicians discovered the art of targeted direct mail. Never has an election campaign been as tightly focused on the alleged "swing voters" in swing seats. I feel sorry for the young family in mid-suburban Northampton, Braintree or Kettering. The doormat must be covered daily in junk mail.

And therein lies the rub. Political leaflets are junk mail. They are even less likely to be read than the pizza delivery service ad. The Labour leaflets I have seen are all too complicated: whoever designed them fondly imagined the voters would sit down and read them. When I was designing door drops at Asda, I believed they had to be effective even if their shelf life was the 30 seconds it takes to transfer them from the doormat to the bin. The message has to be as clear as a tabloid headline and is best conveyed in pictures. Only politicians are interested in policy manifestos.

It is the brand, the feel, the tone that counts. And it must be repeated over and over again.

Personally, I think the newfound enthusiasm for "targeting" is rather over-rated. The statistical evidence suggests that it makes little difference to the outcome unless it is rooted in local issues and local campaigns.

And local campaigns have to start months and months before the election is called. When I was running for Parliament I used to dread the arrival of the big-shot shadow cabinet member. All they would achieve is to drown out the local message and distract all my loyal followers for a day.

So how do I rate the Labour campaign marketing this time? Better than Michael Foot's, perhaps. Sadly, I rather doubt if it will have much bearing on the result.

Archie Norman is the former Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells.

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