Close-Up: Live Issue - How can Saatchis reach young voters?

With low voter turnout a big problem, can young people be persuaded to vote?

"Not flash, just Gordon." This catchy strapline, reminiscent of the character-focused political campaigns of the 90s, was one of the ideas that secured Saatchi & Saatchi the Labour Party's advertising account last week.

But will this type of ad appeal to a new generation of young, disaffected voters? Rather than being captivated by political popularity contests, young voters are growing increasingly disinterested and distrustful of politics and politicians. And with little to separate left from right, many are unable to differentiate what Gordon Brown and David Cameron really stand for.

So, with voter turnout at its third- lowest since the turn of the 20th century, at just 37 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds, what should Saatchis be doing to ensure young people not only turn up at the polling stations, but also vote Labour?

The problem Saatchis has to contend with is not that young people are apathetic towards politics, as Alan Crossley, a graduate trainee at Fallon, explains: "Young people really do care about many issues and they are the first to hit the street and demonstrate. The problem is they only really react to things that are black or white, whereas politics contains lots of nuances."

However, there are also those that, due to background and education, have little understanding of the part they have to play in the democratic process and view politics in general as "geeky".

So, before embarking on any major political ad campaign, Labour needs to educate swathes of young people about the importance of politics and re-engage those who already have an interest by focusing on the issues that will entice them into political discourse.

As Dr Dominic Wring, a senior lecturer at Loughborough University and the author of The Politics and Marketing of the Labour Party, says: "It's about identifying the issues, nurturing and getting people to vote at elections rather than enforcing political intent."

An agency head who has worked on a political ad account argues that with an increasingly self-centred youth culture, the issues on which Labour should focus are those that affect young people's immediate locality. "Young people are not interested in taxation or immigration," he explains.

However, Oli Pattenden, a Bartle Bogle Hegarty graduate recruit, disagrees: "Issues like tax and immigration need to be made relevant. They need to tell young people how they will affect them when they wake up tomorrow."

There is a resounding agreement that Labour's message needs to be clear, focused and informative and that its advertising should be about engagement rather than interruption. "They need to engage us in a way that makes us ask questions and give us a space to go and find the answers," Pattenden says.

"TV shows like Big Brother prove that young people are an engageable audience, it's just about tailoring your message and moving away from stigmas attached to politics," Holly Kidman, one of Media-Com's graduate intake, adds.

Most agree that using traditional 48-sheet posters that shove political messages down young people's throats will fail to reverse existing attitudes. Instead, Labour should be looking to the US to the likes of Barak Obama and Hilary Clinton, who are using new media channels to educate and engage young people in political debate.

But politicans trying to grapple with digital are in danger of embarrassing themselves. One agency planner, who has worked on political ads, says: "Rather than jumping on the Facebook or MySpace bandwagon, they should be creating something new, because that's what politics is crying out for."

GRADUATE TRAINEE - Oli Pattenden, graduate trainee, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Tactics that try to put a sexy slant on political ads don't always wash with young people. They should get down to the nitty gritty, rather than doing big visually impressive campaigns.

"We're already quite dubious of politicians and have inherent trust issues. If we're exposed to ads that aren't focused and fail to give us information about the party and their politics, that won't work.

"The problem isn't within the channel they're using, it's more the message they're pushing. Regardless of where I see the communication, if the message I get is 'Labour are better than the Conservatives,' and they haven't told me why, then I'm not going to be convinced."

GRADUATE TRAINEE - Holly Kidman, graduate trainee, MediaCom

"Targeting people at university is key. You need to grab their attention at a time when young people are really independent for the first time, and quite engaged in politics.

"They need to tie in initiatives that are relevant to students both in and out of university, like dealing with a student loan or first-time buying.

"Interactive and more interpersonal forms of media are essential. They need to move away from that bureaucratic image of a distant person in a suit and engage with popular culture by using interactive communications and sponsorship with trusted brands."

GRADUATE TRAINEE - Alan Crossley, graduate trainee, Fallon

"There's a big divide between young people and the world of traditional politics and the issues they're addressing. You can't push issues on to youth and talk at them with traditional advertising methods. It's more about bridging the two worlds and empowering young people to make a difference.

"With Gordon Brown, Labour has a charmingly uncharming leader and it's a real opportunity to redeem and refresh the labour brand. But it's not a case of getting Brown to wear his cap sideways. They need to get people educated on politics in general before they can get them to care about their message."

GRADUATE TRAINEE - Alexis Mellon, graduate trainee, OgilvyOne

"What's fashionable is viral advertising and getting to younger people on their level, but actually one of the strengths of Brown so far is that he's moved away from that kind of knee-jerk reaction to social trends.

"Blair would have immediately had his cronies sorting out a Facebook page. But there's something more solid and reliable about Brown, and you get the feeling he's not just going to jump on the bandwagon like that.

"Instead, Labour needs to treat younger people as though they care what they think and invite them into an adult conversation."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

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