General Election 2015: The campaign's started but what's the point?

From German roads turning up in Tory ads to Ed Miliband's claim that Labour will have 4m conversations instead of "buying up poster sites", the political parties' General Election marketing campaigns came to life this week. But will all this activity make any difference, asks Will Harris, chief executive of PR agency Mission Media and former Conservative Party marketing director.

Conservative Party: poster was mocked for featuring a German road
Conservative Party: poster was mocked for featuring a German road

With an audible media sigh at the thought of the longest election campaign in living memory, the election has begun.

I, for one, say pity the poor journalists. The entire opening section of their general election playbook has been ripped out with the move to fixed-term parliaments.

In the good old days, the phoney war (before the PM popped over to the Palace) provided three good months of coverage. Columnists sagely predicted when polling day would be, safe in the knowledge that actually only one person really knew, and they could change their mind at any time. It was a prediction no one ever held you to, like a whispered Grand National tip.

Remember Gordon Brown’s will-he-won’t-he electoral moment that seemed for many to be the final seal on his disappointing prime ministerial debut? Three weeks of fevered speculation, followed by another three weeks of intense retrospective, and then years of media teeth sucking. Dear Oliver Letwin; when you drafted the coalition agreement that specified fixed term parliaments, did you not consider the plight of the media, and think how they would cope?

This election has become the equivalent of the Christmas marketing season. Each big High Street store puts out their Christmas ad, vying for that special place in the heart of the nation. The ads themselves are prepared months in advance, promotions are lined up, stock is on order. There is an inevitability about the campaign where everything except the actual (trading) result which, as we have seen this week, can often surprise. We are embarking on just such a campaign in our electoral cycle.

Baby-kissing

So brace yourself for four months of posters masquerading as news stories, grip and grins, photobombs, baby-kissing and stern press conferences. Messages will be honed, rebuttal strategies prepared and deployed, spontaneous photo opportunities rehearsed over and over again.

Both big parties have had well over a dozen people working on what they call Leader’s Tours for several months now. They control and prepare the process of selecting a venue that will chime with the message of the day. The school/hospital/factory/club/business needs to be thoroughly vetted for uncomfortable associations and anything that could distract attention away from the message du jour.

The meet and greets are arranged by the advance party. Any obvious photographic clangers identified and worked around, often not as easy as it sounds. It’s one thing to put a nil bacon sandwich order on the candidate, it’s quite another to get your candidate out of a building without presenting photographers with an image of them and a huge green illuminated sign marked 'EXIT' above their heard.

There’s a sickening sense in the stomachs of everyone involved in all this huge collective human effort that it won’t really make a difference as to who wins

So far, so predictable. There’s a sickening sense in the stomachs of everyone involved in all this huge collective human effort that it won’t really make a difference as to who wins. It’s classic defensive play, table stakes that each side has to adhere to because the others do.

The real breakthrough comes with the unplanned or unexpected parts of the campaign, and the hope here is that as the choreography of the election becomes more fixed and predictable, the parties will dream up surprises and innovations to delight us.

Walking through Waterloo this morning I saw two separate people sporting FRTs. A month ago that would have meant nothing to me, but ever since someone let me in on the secret of the 'Fucking Red Trousers' blog, I’ve realised that the world is divided into those that know and those that don’t.

My hope is that even now, someone is beavering away creating internet memes and blogs that will smoke out the charlatans and chancers who would dare to claim to govern us. The tragedy would be that their mediocrity will be masked by slick marketing.



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