CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/POLITICAL ADVERTISING - The general election advertising arms race is on. Despite curbs on ad spend for all parties, the election means an advertising blitz

'Voters are very, very demanding consumers - they think that politicians, policies and parties are merely products for their perusal,' Trevor Beattie, the creative director of TBWA/London, told The Independent's fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in October.

'Voters are very, very demanding consumers - they think that politicians, policies and parties are merely products for their perusal,' Trevor Beattie, the creative director of TBWA/London, told The Independent's fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in October.

'They say: 'We want the best for less. We want tax cuts and we want better public services.''

Beattie summed up Labour's dilemma as it drew up the party's 'near campaign' for the general election, which Tony Blair plans to call next May. Beattie's answer to the problem emerged last week, when Blair unveiled four posters that struck a surprisingly contrite tone and thanked the people who 'voted for change' in 1997.

Labour strategists admit the next election - the first it will fight as the governing party for 22 years - will be much more challenging than in 1997, when it cruised to power on a tide of anti-Tory feeling. This time, as Beattie acknowledged, it will be Labour that has to justify its record and the Tories on the attack. 'No, the dream has not been fulfilled - yet. But neither has it turned sour,' he said.

The soft sell of TBWA's first ads since winning the Labour account in April was a deliberate response to voters' feelings that the Government had become arrogant and out of touch, and had failed to live up to its own hype about improving public services. Future ads will aim to combat the cynicism about politics that Labour accuses the Tories of fomenting.

'They (the Conservatives) want people to think that all the parties are the same, so there is no reason to vote,' a senior Labour strategist said.

The prospect of a low turnout is deeply worrying for Labour: if the Tories mobilise their traditional supporters and Labour fails to do so, the result could be much closer than the pundits expect.

The worrying lesson for Labour from the knife-edge election in the United States is that voters punish governments that make a mess of the economy but don't necessarily reward those that handle it competently. So one of TBWA's most difficult tasks will be to persuade people to give Blair the credit for avoiding the economic disasters that engulfed previous Labour governments, which prevented the party serving two successive full Parliamentary terms.

TBWA's opening burst suggests a kinder, more gentle election campaign, but anyone hoping for an end to Punch and Judy politics will be disappointed.

The Cabinet, which discussed the election strategy at Chequers on 17 November, was told that a central feature of the campaign will be an attack on the pounds 16 billion of spending cuts that Labour claims the Conservatives would make if they returned to power.

The Tories are scornful of the idea that Labour has suddenly gone soft, accusing it of 'dirty tricks', such as claiming the Tories would privatise the health service, in three Parliamentary seats where by-elections took place this week (23 November). 'Labour may be softer above the line, but it is still hitting below the belt,' one Tory campaign chief said.

The Tories claim that TBWA's 'thank you' blitz demonstrates that Labour is rattled. Labour describes it as a 'medium-sized ad campaign' and refuses to disclose its budget. But the Tories suggest it will cost about pounds 1 million. Industry sources believe Labour has grabbed 1,500 48-sheet and 300 96-sheet sites, and there is speculation that a big advertiser pulled out to create the space for the Labour push - an old Tory trick.

There remains something of a mystery over who will produce the Conservatives' reply to TBWA's opening shot of the campaign.

Although three agencies say they have been approached recently by the Tories, the party's spokesmen dismiss as 'completely and utterly untrue' the idea that the Tory chairman, Michael Ancram, is getting cold feet about using the Newcastle and Edinburgh-based Yellow M, the shop that, surprisingly, landed the party's business six months ago.

'We haven't spent much money yet but we are really pleased with Yellow M,' a senior Tory source said. The feedback from three anti-Labour ads in October was very positive. Yellow M adopted the same 'ordinary people' approach now being used by TBWA; however, instead of showing voters pleased that they had backed Labour in 1997, the Tory ads depicted people disillusioned by Labour's record on health, education and crime, under the theme: 'Is this what you voted for?'

The Tories' financial position has improved since William Hague made a virtue out of appointing a 'non-metropolitan' agency. Some Tory insiders suggest that the party, having closed the opinion poll gap and finally got back in the race, might now attract a more prestigious pitchlist than it did this spring, when Bates UK was the only large London-based shop ready to work for the party.

The Tories remain bruised that M&C Saatchi's pounds 12.7 million campaign made so little impact in 1997. The scale of their ad budget this time is likely to depend on how close the race is. 'It will be about quality, not quantity,' one insider said. Another added: 'We are not going to throw good money after bad if we don't have a chance.'

Both parties will be constrained by a Bill, due to be passed by Parliament this month, which will restrict each party's total election budget to pounds 20 million in the 12 months before polling day. Labour, which spent pounds 7.6 million on ads last time, is believed to have earmarked about pounds 5 million, but one aide said: 'We will probably spend whatever the Tories do.' So, despite the spending curbs, the advertising arms race continues.



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