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