CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/POLITICAL ADVERTISING; Could the Tories’ negative ads enhance Labour?

Andrew Grice looks at the Tory Party’s comparative ads and Labour’s reaction

Andrew Grice looks at the Tory Party’s comparative ads and Labour’s


‘Why on earth should we advertise the Labour Party on our poster?’

Margaret Thatcher is said to have asked Tim Bell when, in 1976, he

showed her a proposed ad showing a dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour

isn’t working’. Bell, then chairman and managing director of Saatchi and

Saatchi Compton, stuck to his guns and the rest is history: the ad

helped make the Saatchi brothers household names and Thatcher to become

prime minister the following year.

Thatcher’s doubts were echoed when M&C Saatchi - with the help of Peter

Gummer, chairman of the PR company, Shandwick - unveiled a pounds 2

million blitz under the slogan ‘New Labour, new danger’ (Campaign, last

week). When Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, briefed 100 MPs on the

offensive, it went down well but some of them wondered whether the party

was running the risk of promoting Tony Blair rather than undermining


Bell had doubts about the timing of the anti-Labour attack. He thought

it might be better to continue with a more positive message about the

Government’s achievements before going for Blair just before the party

conferences this autumn. But Maurice Saatchi wanted a more immediate

assault and, crucially, Mawhinney agreed there was no time to lose.

Some leading admen believe, however, that the ‘negative campaign’ might

backfire. Chris Rendel, the chief executive of Foote Cone Belding, which

carries out twice-weekly ‘mind and mood’ focus group discussions to

guage the mood of the nation, has serious doubts about the strategy. ‘We

believe from our research that comparative advertising which elevates

Labour to any position of substance is a very high-risk occupation,’

Rendel says. Using ‘New Labour’ in the campaign might only give

credibility to Blair’s ‘new’ party, he adds.

However, Saatchi insists that Blair must be tackled head-on. Danny

Finkelstein, director of the Conservative research department, had

reached a similar conclusion and the pair persuaded Mawhinney that the

Tories must attack Labour for what it is, not what they would like it to


Saatchi told Tory officials that ‘new’ was a powerful, positive word.

The mission was to turn it into a negative. ‘To most people, ‘new’ means

dynamic, exciting and safe,’ Saatchi said. ‘We have to make people

interpret it as untried, untested and dangerous.’

M&C Saatchi’s recipe was a poster showing red curtains and a pair of

sinister-looking eyes peering through. The image, also in press ads, was

broadcast in a party political broadcast on Thursday. The eyes are meant

to symbolise the interfering ‘nanny’ state that Labour would create,

together with a hint of menace about Labour’s still dangerous policies.

Sources at M&C Saatchi dismiss the allegation of negative campaigning as

nothing new. Saatchi and Saatchi’s ‘tax bombshell’ campaign at the 1992

election was widely seen as crude, but it worked brilliantly. ‘People

say they hate negative advertising and the media doesn’t like it,’ one

M&C Saatchi man says, ‘but providing it has a credible message, it


The Tories insist that their pounds 10 million campaign will have

positive phases, too. It will play up the reviving economy with the

slogan ‘life’s better under the Conservatives’ - a theme favoured by

Bell. It is hardly original, though. In 1959, Colman Prentis and Varley

used ‘life is better under the Conservatives. Don’t let Labour ruin it.’

In 1987, when Saatchi and Bell competed for Thatcher’s ear and clashed

bitterly over advertising strategy, the Tories used: ‘Britain is great

again. Don’t let Labour wreck it.’ Plus a change.

Publicly, Labour is relaxed about the Tory offensive. Officials claim

its focus groups gave the thumbs-down to the new press ad, which uses

straplines such as ‘New Labour is dangerous in new ways’ and which look

like cut-out newspaper headlines. To Labour’s delight, some voters

complained that it looked like a ‘ransom note’ or a ‘blackmail letter’.

In private, Labour strategists are not so sure. They know the Tory

campaign is bound to cause damage because some mud always sticks. ‘Money

does speak,’ one senior Labour man admitted. ‘We have a real problem.’

At one stage, Labour hoped to have a pounds 4 million budget but now it

looks as if BMP DDB, the party’s agency headed by chief executive, Chris

Powell, will have to manage with pounds 2 million. However, some Labour

sources suggest and hope the party will boost the spend now the massive

scale of the Tory budget has emerged.

For the time being, BMP must rely on tactical campaigns. But guerrilla

war can be just as effective as a heavyweight offensive. When the Tories

announced their change of strategy last week, Labour quickly booked

space at Piccadilly Circus and flashed up two slogans: ‘Tories back New

Labour’ and ‘New Labour - it’s official’. It was displayed for only one

hour at a cost of pounds 20,000, but it secured as much time on

television news bulletins as the Tories’ 1,500-site ‘new danger’ poster.

Labour officials say its campaign team is ‘lean and keen’ - just like

Bell and Saatchi were in 1979 - and claim the experienced Tory troika

has lost its appetite for a fight. We shall soon see whether, after four

election defeats since Thatcher came to power, Labour can finally turn

the tables.

Andrew Grice is the political editor of the Sunday Times