EDITORIAL: Exploding politics' advertising myths

It's hard to know what induces a bigger sense of foreboding about

Tony Blair's calling of a general election for 7 June: the fact that the

result of the contest is a foregone conclusion or that political

advertising is about to reach overkill proportions.

Precocious and bad-tempered six-year-olds playing musical chairs

couldn't provide a more unedifying spectacle than Labour and the

Conservatives scrambling to secure more poster sites before the

election. The likelihood that much of the spend will be wasted seems not

to matter. Advertising is a tiger the parties ride because they fear the

consequences of jumping off.

Politicians often have curiously contradictory attitudes towards it.

Many seem to believe the industry to have almost magical power, leading

the most extreme to want to shackle it. Yet most have no qualms about

harnessing that supposed power if it keeps them in office. The truth is

that politicians' blind faith in the power of advertising is based on

the myth that success is directly proportional to the size of the


First, let's deal with the myth. The famous Saatchi & Saatchi 'Labour

isn't working' poster of 1979, which is regarded as the forerunner of

serious political advertising in the UK, ran on only a handful of


But it was a PR triumph because Labour was tricked into publicly

attacking it.

Second, the presumed correlation between big budgets and election


True, the Tories heavily outspent Labour in the contests between 1979

and 1992, but their victories had more to do with Labour's internecine

warfare than adspend. Moreover, a record spend by the Tories last time

around failed to prevent a huge mauling at the polls.

Little wonder that political advertising has become something to be

endured rather than enjoyed. For one thing, its effect on punters is now

diminished because political messages are no longer confined to election

times, but are an all-year-round phenomenon. For another, political

accounts are poisoned chalices for agencies. Yellow M and TBWA/London

(the Tory and Labour shops respectively) are in no-win situations.

Creativity comes hard if you are Yellow M and your client is on a hiding

to nothing. As for TBWA, it will get little praise for increasing

Labour's majority but plenty of brickbats if it doesn't.


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