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
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.