CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/POLITICAL ADVERTISING; Poster contractors wise up to Tory manoeuvres

Richard Cook investigates the new guidelines to stop political abuse of posters

Richard Cook investigates the new guidelines to stop political abuse of

posters



This is a world of whisperings. A world where little is what it seems

and where the only people who know what’s really happening are the very

people who don’t dare say. This, in short, is the world of political

advertising.



Last week, the UK’s two largest poster contractors, who represent 70 per

cent of the 48-sheet market, announced new guidelines that would

henceforth govern the way in which the political parties could use their

favourite medium (Campaign, last week). Maiden followed the lead of

Mills and Allen in calling for greater transparency in political poster

advertising and more specifically for an end to broking. This is the

practice of booking poster sites in the name of one client and then

subsequently using them to promote another.



If that sounds straightforward, it isn’t. This practice was not allowed

before last week’s announcement. But that failed to deter widespread

abuse of the system at the past few general elections, principally by

the Conservative Party and the agencies working for it.



Last time around, in 1992, the abuse took two main forms. Campaigns were

booked in the name of unwitting clients of the Tories’ then poster

buying company, Harrison Salinson - companies such as Saab, LA Gear and

Gillette - before John Major went to the country. Once the election date

was announced and the three weeks of campaigning began, these sites were

given over to Tory advertising. The availability of decent poster sites

is often a problem, and this strategy neatly by-passed that concern.

Three or four major advertisers can, in fact, fill the 96-sheet market,

for example, which comprises some of the biggest and best poster sites.

In addition, it helped the Tories delay an official announcement of the

election date, making it harder for the other parties to find sites of a

similar quality.



Still more pernicious was the behaviour of some of the companies that

had year-long contracts to advertise in prestige poster sites. They

transferred some of their stock to the Tories. That the bulk of these

companies were the arch lobbyists of the cigarette and alcohol

industries, and that there was uncertainty over whether the Tories

actually paid for the sites, further muddied the waters.



All that will now stop, and not apparently because of any deeply held

conviction governing the use of advertising in a political democracy,

but because there’s money to be made.



‘We, like all media, command the best prices when there is the highest

demand,’ David Pugh, Mills and Allen’s commercial director, explains.

‘If we allow stalking-horse campaigns then the laws of supply and demand

are subverted. Any political party is going to have a huge need for a

heavyweight campaign at the last minute around an election - and if we

know that then obviously that will affect the prices we can charge.’



It is interesting that this tightening in the rules has occurred as the

Tories have sorted out their financial position by wiping out a pounds

20 million overdraft. In fact, the Tories are expecting to spend at

least pounds 5 million on advertising in the run-up to the election and

the same again in the actual pre-election campaign. They will probably

outspend Labour by four to one and the Lib-Dems by six to one, and there

is definitely a feeling that because the Tories can now apparently

afford a proper advertising campaign it makes it less important that the

party should play fast and loose with best advertising practice.



‘Labour should be very pleased with the changes announced last week,’

Andrew Grice, the political editor of the Sunday Times, explains,

‘because they do feel that there has been an uneven playing field. But

there is also the feeling among the Tories that it has also benefited

them in some way - that it might have become yet another sleaze question

for them and that Labour might well have made a big deal out of it.’



But the response from Labour’s advertising teams has been reserved. ‘I

don’t think we are wholly convinced by it,’ Chris Powell, the BMP DDB

chief executive who co-ordinates Labour’s advertising, says. ‘It is a

step in the right direction but it’s certainly not yet a completely open

market.’



Whatever happens, the governing party will still have the first chance

to book sites in the crucial pre-election period simply because it is

the first to know the election date.



‘That is always going to be a problem for the opposition party,’ says

Eric Newnham, managing director of Poster Publicity, the specialist

poster buyer for Labour. ‘But I think it’s a very responsible move by

the media owners, even if it does begin to indicate how much of these

political deals were done under the counter in the past.’



And that should perhaps be the end of it. Except that this is a world of

whisperings and it is a fact that the poster industry has been subjected

to more than its fair share of government intervention over the past

decade. This has been in the form of referrals to the Monopolies and

Mergers Commission as the industry has concentrated. That process is far

from complete - or far from complete in the eyes of the largest players,

who have now entered into talks with the Government and the opposition.



You might think that there was some connection between the need for

greater political transparency and the wishes of the poster industry.

You might think that, but I’m sure no-one could possibly comment.



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