CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - SCOTTISH AND WELSH ELECTIONS. Scottish parties tackle apathy with advertising

The SNP goes for Labour's jugular in Scots Assembly elections.

It's round two for the Scottish and Welsh Parliamentary elections this week and the occasion has brought out some good, old-fashioned mud-slinging. Well, in Scotland at least. The Welsh parties barely seem to have made an advertising whimper this time around.

A key lesson learned from the inaugural Scottish elections was that it wasn't the "safe" Labour seat as had been thought and this has upped the ante on the advertising strategies used this time to swing more voters.

The elections use a mixture of the first-past-the-post system, to elect 73 members, and a second vote where 56 seats are allocated to parties based on the proportion of the overall vote each party gets.

A tangible chance to land a seat - as the first Green and a Socialist candidate did in 1999 - through proportional representation has encouraged 32 parties to contest the elections this time round. Alongside the four main parties - the Scottish National Party, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservative - voters can find the likes of the Fishing Party, four hospital campaign parties and two pensioners' parties on the ballot.

This freedom to vote has opened the door for SNP. In 1997, there were only four seats where Labour had less than a 20-point lead over a second place SNP candidate. Now there are 34. It has launched an aggressive advertising campaign on the back of this.

The first election in 1999, represented a clean slate that saw Scotland vote in its first Parliament for 300 years. In 2003, Labour now has a four-year track record and the other parties, the SNP in particular, have predictably concentrated on perceived Labour shortcomings in their advertising.

The SNP campaign, which uses the strapline "release our potential", has gone for Labour's jugular and focused heavily on the problems that it has failed to alleviate, such as crime and education.

Much of the creative features personal attacks of the Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, such as an Oliver Twist-style image of him begging to Tony Blair. The often hard-hitting campaign - which, in one party political broadcast, shows a clip of a man dying in hospital from lack of adequate services - has attracted the most media attention of all the parties.

"We tried to be newsworthy and different from the pack by visually grabbing people's attention," Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP, says. "We focused on Labour's record in both newsworthy and humorous ways, with the aim of getting both press and public attention."

Gary O'Donnell, a managing partner at Scottish Labour's ad agency TBWA/Edinburgh, is critical of the SNP's approach. He believes the strategy reinforces the public's poor perception of politics and will turn people off voting.

"The SNP's work is aggressive and personal against Jack McConnell. It trivialises the election process and many people see it as inter-party bickering. The advertising comes across as anti-Labour and not pro-SNP with no clear policy agenda," he says.

"It is a strategy born of the need to generate news coverage but it isn't in touch with what the people want. In fact, it's this kind of thing that is responsible for people switching off in the first place."

But Ian Wright, the chief executive of the SNP's agency Family, argues that it is an issue-based campaign, that a leader is the embodiment of the party and is a legitimate figure to attack.

"We wanted to focus on the issues affecting Scots. We have treated the SNP as a brand, not a political party that needs a shot in the arm. Any party in opposition will pick up on what the incumbent is doing. It is not negative and voter apathy has nothing to do with our campaign, it has to do with Parliament and its performance."

Interestingly, in a previous life Wright and the creative team behind the campaign were at the now defunct Yellow M, the agency responsible for handling the advertising for both the Scottish Conservative's 1999 campaign and the Tories in the General Election of 2001.

Many in Scotland believed that when decisions on services such as health, education and crime would be administered by a local Parliament that the problems would be alleviated. However, many problems have persisted. TBWA's campaign points out that the problems are long-term and there is no quick fix. Using the strapline: "It's just the beginning", it highlights Labour's achievements in its first term in office as the first steps in the process.

"The public perception of politics is that politics is full of rhetoric. We wanted it to equal honesty and hard work - to show that Scottish Labour is out to serve the public good and to engage those who have disengaged with voting and politics," O'Donnell says.

The main media used by the parties is posters, although the SNP also targeted the trade press of specific key demographics, such as teachers and nurses, with tactical executions. Each party also has three party political broadcasts. TBWA offered strategic advice but did not produce any PPBs. Family produced all of the SNP's. The Conservatives, who use agency Ten Alps MTD, also handled their own broadcasts.

The Scottish Conservative Party isn't a contender, it isn't likely to be involved in any negotiations to form a coalition government post-election, and is in fact in danger of losing up to a third of the seats it won in the last election, according to polls.

Guy Harrower, the joint creative director at Ten Alps MTD, is realistic about what the party aims to achieve with its campaign, called "do something about it".

"We have used around six executions and have been positive rather than using the knocking approach like the SNP, which people are sick of," he says. "The Conservatives aren't flavour of the month anyway so we have to be more careful in how we push the message.

We are highlighting the problems with the status quo and using posters and tactical one-offs, such as ad vans, to say what the Conservatives would do."

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Liberal Democrats, the kingmakers in the 1999 election that struck a deal with Labour to make a majority government, have no ad agency and have done little to promote themselves.

Admittedly, they are in the same position this time and despite polls showing them down a number of seats, they only need to sit on the sidelines and let the big boys duke it out for now.

Similarly, the Welsh parties are doing little more than mailings and door-to-door canvassing. After seeing the big budgets spent on the last General Election, the main parties aren't convinced that advertising delivers.

Chris Lines, the chief executive of the Welsh Liberals, says: "Part of the reason the Welsh parties don't go in for advertising is that Wales doesn't have a proper media. The national newspaper - The Western Mail - doesn't reach North Wales and the Daily Post doesn't reach South Wales. Also, there is an increasing cynicism about politics. People have lost trust because of spin, which has led us all to turn to a basic form of campaigning."

The SNP's Murrell is highly critical of such a stance because of the problem of low voter turn-out.

Voter apathy is a massive problem for both the Scottish and Welsh elections.

The 1999 Scottish election saw a turn-out of 58 per cent, in Wales it was a dismal 46 per cent.

In recognition of the problem, the Electoral Commission recently launched a campaign in both countries through St Luke's to highlight the importance of voting.

Murrell believes that all the main political parties have a responsibility to the public to run advertising campaigns.

"If you don't play the game, you run the danger of being lost in the mix. It is a two-horse race but all the parties need to grab attention.

We all have a responsibility to make an effort, and that means going beyond house-to-house visits and advertising, to get the public to turn out and vote," he says.


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