World: Analysis - Can advertising offer an edge when it comes to voting day?

Closely contested election campaigns attract greatest adspend.

Americans are going to be seeing a whole lot of it this year and it will probably be nastier than ever. Brits will have to wait for next year and there will be no shortage of potential topics. In Spain, it was largely overtaken by terrorism; in Russia, it was thin on the ground and probably wouldn't have made much difference anyway.

It is political campaigning and the amounts spent by candidates trying to convince the electorate that they are the ones to vote for can vary hugely from country to country: in the US, it's estimated that $1.3 billion will be spent, while in Russia, the amount was negligible.

But how effective is it? Can it swing an election? Do people actually pay any attention to it at all?

Will Harris, the Conservative Central Office head of communications, says: "My view of political advertising is that it can be incredibly effective, but it's very difficult. Get it right and you capture the mood of the nation. The reason it's difficult is because you're trying to hit a moving target. You might feel the same way about a brand of soft drink for a year, but public opinion never stands still."

Andrew McGuinness, the chief executive of TBWA\London, the agency behind New Labour's advertising for the last election, unsurprisingly takes a similar line: "It plays a very important role. It crystallises the arguments of the candidates in an election period. A great piece of advertising should communicate in a single image what candidates have been saying for months." In the last election, the poster showing William Hague crossed with Margaret Thatcher united many abstract themes in a memorable and humorous image.

In many ways, such iconic imagery is what the UK does best in terms of electioneering. TV advertising in the UK is limited to party political broadcasts which are, in the minds of many, synonymous with switching over or turning off.

"In the US, the advertising is much more centred on TV because they're allowed to do it," McGuinness says. "It tends to be much more acerbic." But this, and the amounts of money involved, are not the only differences.

Linda Dove, the senior Washington vice-president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says little mainstream agency does any political advertising: "One hundred per cent is handled by specialist consultancies, which are either Democrat or Republican." These provide services ranging from fundraising to creative, although Dove says the real money is in media buying.

Dove says that of the $1.3 billion expected to be spent on campaigning, only $400 to $500 million will be from the candidates themselves and that it is going to be "very targeted and very negative". The other change this time round, she adds, is the 50:50 nature of the country. "They're both fighting for 1 per cent of the vote," she says.

In most of Europe it differs, with ads sticking mainly to candidates and issues and with less truly iconic imagery. Indeed, a Heineken spot from Publicis in Amsterdam mocked the lengthy and extravagant election process in the US.

This attitude owes more to the nature of advertising in European markets.

The British often view advertising, especially election advertising, as a form of entertainment and would be disappointed if there weren't a few hits and misses.

Carlos Anuncibay, the creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi Spain, paints a different picture. "The difference is in the use of media. In the US and UK, you use posters for context. Here, it's just for the image and strapline. More detailed information comes from TV. Plus it tends to concentrate more on the issues and less on negative campaigning," he says.

That said, this year's election owed precious little to advertising.

"(The terrorist attack in) Madrid was such a shock and it had such an impact," Anuncibay says. "The government went on TV and blamed ETA so people mistrusted the government. They got angry and you had a lot of people voting."

In this year's Russian election, it seems advertising was also irrelevant, though for different reasons. The overall spend in Russia was small, Boris Karasyoff, the media director of Initiative in Moscow, says. Moreover, as airtime is free, Putin didn't really do any at all. "He believes his record speaks for itself. I think he's probably right," Karasyoff says.

"There have been a lot of cases where advertising didn't work - for example, the Duma elections." Moreover, he says, Sergei Mironov, the candidate who did the most advertising, won less that 1 per cent of the vote and so, rather ironically, wound up paying for his "free" airtime.

There has, he adds, been some effective campaign advertising, notably by Boris Yeltsin in 1996, but this is the exception, not the rule. This time, the central election committee, whose only job is to get people to vote, reportedly spent twice as much as all the candidates combined.

The problem is that politics is so fickle that a dead cert can become a close call. To spend very little, you'd have to be as sure of yourself as, well, Putin. Conversely, as Dove says, when you're fighting for 1 per cent of the vote, it could swing an election either way.

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